Interpreting the iconic is James Kudelka’s specialty: from Johnny Cash to Tchaikovsky, he can personalize stories and music that audience members think they already know by heart. When even people who’ve never seen a ballet can hum along with the orchestra, how does a choreographer catch us off-guard? His disarmingly heartfelt production of The Nutcracker, celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, explores the mystery of what’s found in translation, from a massive cultural scale down to how children interpret their surroundings.
The performance opens with young siblings Marie and Misha helping their servants catch a rat in the stable. Before the gauzy scrim even rises, we’re dazzled by the luscious set and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto to recall both the intoxicating splendour and ethnic identity that existed side-by-side in Imperial Russia. The Romanov aristocracy was famous for imitating Europe to distance themselves from their Slavic roots, perceived then as too savage for polite society. And so in Act I of Kudelka’s Nutcracker, there’s a significant contrast between the children’s fashionably European parents and the serving class who remain traditionally Slavic in fashion and custom. But mothers in the audience will quickly note who is actually raising the children in this world.
Danced by rising stars from Canada’s National Ballet School, Misha and Marie are corralled, comforted and corrected exclusively by their governess, Baba, and the stable boy, Peter. While they participate in a coldly formal dance with their stylish parents, they also disrupt it, and show far more engagement in the passionate community spirit between servants and townsfolk. They are also entranced by the dancing bears and horse conjured by Uncle Nicolai, who practices a yet untamed ethnic magic and chooses who enters the enchanted world of Act II.
When Marie and Misha are spirited away to the Palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the contrasting elements between their two worlds flow together harmoniously into a breathtaking spectacle that celebrates nobility of spirit over nobility of birth. Are they dreaming? Is it a subconscious blending of their two cultural realities? Or do the children earn their passage into the enchanted world by proving themselves in a battle with the Tsar of the Mice?
Roles are reversed in this battle as Marie and Misha protect an incapacitated Nutcracker. Kudelka takes special care with Peter’s characterization in Act I to show why he is ennobled as the Nutcracker in Act II. Danced on opening night with glorying vitality by principle dancer McGee Maddox, everyone in the barn is enchanted by Peter as surely as the animals are enchanted by Uncle Nicolai. Serving girls and Baba line up to dance with him; the children obey him in everything; even their prim mother flirts with him before she is whisked away by a stern husband. Despite his low position in the Imperial hierarchy, a joyful Peter exudes nobility in how he treats others. There is a reason that Peter is chosen to share in the magic along with the children: he is more a prince at heart than the aristocrats who employ him.
The court of the Sugar Plum Fairy honours the travellers when they arrive in Act II. Danced with astonishing grace by an angelic Heather Ogden, she retreats into her gold Faberge egg after a delicate solo. But it is Peter’s respectful touch that opens the egg again, and she re-emerges for a softly, sincerely romantic pas-de-deux with him. There are moments adults in the audience will notice more than their children, such as when Peter leads the fairy in a turn balanced on his arm, and then significantly turns his palm upwards for her to hold before repeating the same step with new meaning.
Unlike their restrained and controlling parents, Marie and Misha witness a deeper connection blossoming between two characters based on mutual respect and affection. And unlike other traditional balletic heroes, Peter does not win the Sugar Plum Fairy’s heart with stereotypical masculinity; he can’t even win a battle against mice. Not a soldier, Peter is valued for being caring and trustworthy. Kudelka creates a world where characters are rewarded for playing against type: courageous children protect the adults and men become heroes through gentleness.
This version of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas tale integrates a historical texture into the story that asks if the children are envisioning an idealized version of their world, where beauty doesn’t come at such a high price. The Romanov era ended with the violent deaths of royalty as young as Marie and Misha … but in their dream, the contrast between classes does not result in horror. Rather, the magical realm elegantly merges the two worlds the children live in, bringing harmony to separation.
Twenty winters on stage, Kudelka’s Nutcracker still makes an icy breeze feel like a thrilling, redemptive brush with a gentler world.
The Nutcracker runs December 12 through January 3 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For ticketing information, visit national.ballet.ca