When it comes to moments that produce waves of emotion in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” there are some obvious contenders: when the Christmas tree grows, the Nutcracker’s transformation into the Little Prince, the onstage blizzard. But what about the entrance of the Sugarplum Fairy?
Glowing like a celestial being, serene and fully in charge, she skims across the stage neither rushing nor slowing the flow of her delicate pointe work. This season at New York City Ballet, something else struck (or, perhaps, restruck) me: the way the Sugarplum Fairy’s most ardent audience is not found across the orchestra pit, but onstage — the children who play the Angels.
Who gazes at the Sugarplum Fairy with as much anticipation and adoration as these tiny bodies? Standing erect with their pristine bell-shaped costumes quivering ever so slightly — some of them seem to be on the verge of a giggle — their shining eyes tell the unspoken story of “The Nutcracker.”
This isn’t just a ballet, but the journey of ballet. You see it unfold in this scene — students, many of whom are stepping onstage for the first time, are face to face with a potential future: becoming, just maybe, a ballerina with a wand and a tiara of their own. The idea of sugar plums dancing in their heads isn’t just a vision; she’s standing there right in front of them.
Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” is wonderful for many reasons, but an essential one is how he brings ballet back to its roots, showing how the art form reinvents itself over and over again — starting with children.
After last year’s “Nutcracker” featured older students from the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet — vaccination mandates meant that they needed to be at least 12 — the re-emergence of young children this year has restored the ballet’s luster. In his version of “The Nutcracker,” Balanchine celebrates the innocence of childhood. “He seemed like a child himself when he was choreographing,” wrote Maria Tallchief, the original Sugarplum in City Ballet’s production, in 1954, in her autobiography. “I’d never seen him quite like that.”
The spell Balanchine cast then hasn’t been broken. I could watch Taiga Emmer, 8, as the bunny, pull the Mouse King’s tail and then run for his little bunny life for all eternity. As Drosselmeier’s nephew and, later, the Little Prince, Titus Landegger, 11, is convincingly full of spontaneity and wonder. He places the crown on Marie’s head with unwavering focus; I loved that moment every time for the way he was so in the moment.
As program inserts announcing last-minute replacements have attested, “The Nutcracker” hasn’t escaped the coronavirus. Last week, the production was down to one Marie. (Two are cast, so they can alternate performances.) On Sunday, Wakana Ikegami, a dancer in the party scene, stepped in to play Marie in both shows. She learned the role in just four days, but because she was already in the party scene, she had a sense of some facets of the choreography.
And there was a smattering of debuts among the company members. Taking on the role of Sugarplum for the first time were three promising soloists: Emily Kikta, Mira Nadon and Emma Von Enck. Dancing with Joseph Gordon as the Cavalier — her official debut was with Roman Mejia at a student matinee — Von Enck offered the most delicacy and command — especially in the pas de deux, which for all of its flow and elegance can swallow a Sugarplum whole.
There are leaps onto the Cavalier’s shoulder, turns in which the ballerina is caught by the wrist, long balances and dramatic fish dives. It can get thorny. And without the right partner, it can become heart-stopping for all the wrong reasons. But Von Enck was confident, both musical and airy; she’s small, but she dances expansively. She boldly takes up space.
Nadon, so glorious and imposing, was uncharacteristically hesitant at times, even losing her balance as Peter Walker, her Cavalier, missed her wrist in one of the catches. Did they need more time in the studio? Their connection was oddly vacant; it seemed like Walker wasn’t dancing with Nadon as much as moving next to her.
More present as the Cavalier was Gilbert Bolden III, who made his debut in the role this season. He dances big, with a perpetually sunny verve. In a performance with Kikta, he showed his vigilance as a partner; he is always immersed in the moment, awake to surprises. Yet Kikta’s height was, at least in one instance, too much for him; in a shoulder sit, she landed awkwardly — it was as if she was stuck on a kids’ slide and couldn’t commit whether to go up or down. And both Bolden and Kitka’s makeup was a little overpowering; it looked as if the Kingdom of the Sweets had landed on their eyelids.
But Kikta’s power, as always, was entrancing — the way she slices through and carves the air with the length of her limbs is extraordinary, and her Dewdrop, in another performance, was an extravagant rendering of that reach and stretch. Nadon, also reprising Dewdrop, was remarkable in her musicality; letting her glamorous face linger here while her feet sped up over there, she toyed with phrasing, gracing the stage with her dazzling flow and sweep.
Owning “The Nutcracker” takes time — rehearsal time, which these new casts seem to need more of — as well as stage time. I’m starting to think that no one cracks this ballet with more splendor than the veteran Megan Fairchild, whose Sugarplum and Dewdrop were the epitome of gracious ease. Her Dewdrop is fleet and fragrant, her Sugarplum is full of sparkle. So far this season, she is running neck and neck with the children: Each role she takes on becomes the best and breeziest in the whole show.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Through Dec. 31, David H. Koch Theater, nycballet.com