When counting the years on the modern calendar, we often refer to BC and AD (or the more politically correct CE). When considering ballet, one could easily refer to BT and AT – before and after Tchaikovsky. The Russian composer put ballet music on the map. For those who doubt that assertion (and there are some who will merely so they can “dis” Tchaikovsky) consider this: How many memorable ballet scores - that can stand on their own in the concert hall, and away from dancers – were written before Tchaikovsky? And how much did that change after Tchaikovsky put his stamp on ballet music? Probably the most noteworthy original ballet score before Tchaikovsky was Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus. The score, to be blunt, it not particularly interesting or memorable, except for a serviceable overture, and a theme he used several times – as the finale of the Eroica Symphony and in the Eroica Variations.
I’ve seen The Nutcracker more times than I can recall. Dan and I went to the Saturday matinee at the State Theatre. The production, by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet had a particularly Canadian flavor. The Nutcracker is flexible enough that in can withstand changes in tone – even the cutesy-poo addition of a dancing bear. But I found much of the choreography cautious and not up to the standards present when Cleveland had its own ballet company (albeit shared with San Jose). This was Dan’s first live ballet and I wish the dancing had been more virtuosic and the staging more imaginative.
The RWB production took some liberties with the music: the arrangement of pieces in the second act was altered and the Waltz of the Flowers was early on rather than near the end. They even added a piece (the Marche Miniature from Tchaikovsky’s Suite, Op. 43) to the second act – being less harmonically advanced it didn’t really fit into the score. Tempos were cautious during the faster pieces – whether this was to accommodate the dancers or the players I do not know. The playing by the pick-up ensemble was accurate but small scaled.
I learned a lesson: when attending a cultural event which may involve children, always opt for the evening show - never the matinee. Young children simply do not know proper etiquette. Appallingly, too many parents don’t know how to behave either. There was a man in front of us reading a pro-Newt Gingrich blog on his brightly-lit smart phone drawing our attention from the performance.
But for me, the marvel of The Nutcracker, after seeing it live many times, is and will remain Tchaikovsky's score. It shines through even in a less than stellar production. All the more remarkable is that Tchaikovsky composed the ballet’s score under very restrictive conditions imposed by the producer (and some say choreographer) Marius Petipa. The composer was told: "I want seven bars in 3/4 time, then ten bars in 6/8 time, then twenty bars in 4/4 time, at the following tempos..."
It has been said that art thrives on restrictions, and The Nutcracker score is an extreme example of that. I wish I could go back in time and tell Tchaikovsky, who was notoriously insecure about his work and was disappointed in this ballet, that a century later there would be annual productions of this ballet in nearly every major city, that audiences would enjoy the Nutcracker Suite in concert halls and on recordings without even the need to watch the ballet, that even a musical novice would recognize a tune from the score and it would bring a smile to his face - and a tear to his eye.