Under City Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ Tree, Dancers Find New Roles

Posted December 26, 2017 3:01 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Every Christmas season, New York City Ballet dances “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'” for six weeks, sometimes doing as many as 10 performances a week. The production is often regarded as a machine that runs itself. This year, that’s just as well, since Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master in chief, has been on leave of absence since early December. He’s also chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, which provides dozens of students for each “Nutcracker” performance. The allegations of his harassment, physical and sexual, have been widely reported. A team of four, all under 40, has been leading the company until matters are resolved.

In these uncomfortable circumstances, levels of dancing have been remarkably solid, with some superb peaks. And, in the week before Christmas, four dancers made their debuts in leading roles. The role of Dewdrop was taken by Indiana Woodward (last Wednesday), Claire Kretzschmar (Friday), and Miriam Miller (Saturday); the Sugarplum Fairy’s Cavalier was played by Sean Suozzi (Sunday). Woodward and Suozzi are soloists, and Kretzschmar and Miller are corps dancers, but all have made vivid impacts in a number of lead roles. By contrast, a young member of the corps, Clara Frances, largely unknown to the audience, performed the Arabian Coffee solo on Friday.

Dewdrop is a virtuoso coloratura role, with rapid-trilling runs on point, jumps in which one foot is brilliantly flourished in the air, and pirouettes of bewildering complexity. Elsewhere those steps aren’t associated with tall, leggy dancers — but City Ballet is different. Balanchine created Dewdrop on Tanaquil Le Clercq, a legendarily slender, long-limbed ballerina. Kretzschmar and Miller are among her physical heirs: Kretzschmar is happy, fizzy, almost febrile, while Miller is sunny, lyrical, with a face and smile that effortlessly beam out into the theater. Woodward is petite, bubbly, with feet that seem to have more spring and bounce than those of anyone in the company.

These are all impressive dancers, who here confirmed the winning impressions they have made in other roles. For Miller, the Dewdrop hurdle was important, because this is the fastest and most intricate part she has yet taken: She claimed it with the same radiant naturalness that has characterized everything she’s done. My only cavil about Kretzschmar is that the slow turns in the ballet’s finale make her feet look inelegant as she rises each time onto point; my only cavil about Woodward is that her physical brilliance hasn’t yet become spatially expansive. These developments may come soon. As for Frances, she negotiated all of Coffee’s rhythmic challenges and contrasts with a calmly luscious glow.

Suozzi is not associated with cavalier roles — he’s excellent, wittily mysterious, in this ballet’s acting role of the magician Drosselmeyer — but it was marvelous to see the selfless elegance and skill with which he partnered the Sugarplum Fairy of Woodward (who on short notice replaced Ashly Isaacs). Their main pas de deux is a famous obstacle course with diverse challenges; I mean it as a compliment that Suozzi, though handsome and dignified, made himself invisible, quietly framing the sparkling Woodward. Though he showed tension in the coda’s bravura solo sequences, this is an important milestone in his career.

Connoisseurs of the Balanchine “Nutcracker” should notice a couple of changes that have been made this season. The most discussed has been to reduce the element of racial caricature in Chinese Tea: The male dancer now wears a modified hat and makeup, and neither points his index fingers upward or does rapid little runs. How to represent national or ethnic types within the framework of Tchaikovsky’s score? This is a challenge I hope the company will continue to consider.

The best reason to keep revisiting “The Nutcracker” is Tchaikovsky’s score. The most sophisticated ballet composition of the 19th century, it’s also the most Mozartian, with bells, woodwind, staccato and voices that often make this Tchaikovsky’s version of “The Magic Flute.” City Ballet’s orchestra has played it particularly well this season, under five conductors. The company’s two resident solo violinists are both old hands at the Act I solo (an entr’acte interpolated from “The Sleeping Beauty”). But Arturo Delmoni plays it as if he knows it too well — he often ornaments it — whereas Kurt Nikkanen combines poetry with precision.


Event Information:

“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker,'” through Dec. 31 at Lincoln Center; nycballet.com.