Nussknacker und Mausekönig, Tchaikovsky-Spuck, Ballett Zurich, December 26, 2018.
In his Nussknacker und Mausekönig for Ballett Zürich, Christian Spuck demonstrates how deeply he understands your greatest regret about having had to grow up: not that ability to consume enormous amounts of candied nuts without getting sick, but your having lost that once unforced openness to magical thinking. It’s been too long since that time when you knew how to look beyond the obvious, when wonder seemed natural and “sliding doors” normal, when your dolls were not “toys” but snarky and sassy and opinionated and utterly real living beings.
Spuck also demonstrates how well he understands our second greatest regret about having had to grow up: realizing that now it’s your turn to take the kids to see The Nutcracker. Most versions of this holiday staple have this in common: cloying sweetness and one hell of a loose and dramatically limp plot. Act 1: girl gets a toy on Christmas Eve, duh, big surprise. People in ill-fitting mouse costumes try to launch a rebellion that gets squashed in three minutes and twenty seconds flat [if you listen to the version by Fedoseyev and the USSR Radio-TV Symphony Orchestra]. Unh-huh. It snows. Well, that can happen in December. Act Two: she dreams of random dances that have something to do with sugar or flowers. Like, wow. Why did anyone think this drivel would ever be of interest to children? When I was small, I came out of this – my first ballet — sorely offended by this insult to my intelligence…and to my imagination.
Spuck’s exhilarating rethinking of this old chestnut returns to the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann in order to scrape off thick layers of saccharine thinking. Newly told, a real narrative takes us back to a surreal and fantastical realm that is both familiar yet often unsettling and keeps you guessing right up to the end.
But first I must confess that the desire to see one of the Paris Opera Ballet’s many talented dancers “on leave” this season originally inspired my pilgrimage to Zurich. Eléonore Guérineau is alive and well and lived it up as Princess Pirlipat. She has taken to Spuck’s style like a duck to water [or, given the nuts, like a squirrel to a tree]. Her fairy-tale princess read as if her Lise from the Palais Garnier had spent the interim closely observing the velvety perversity of cats rather than the scratchy innocence of chickens. – The way Guérineau adjusted the bow of her dress differently each time added layer upon layer to her character, including a soupçon of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane, totally in keeping with Hoffmann’s sense of how the beautiful and the bizarre intersect. Our Parisian ballerina’s chiseled lines and plush push remain intact, and the two kids in front of me immediately got that she was Marie’s sassier alter-ego (and were disappointed every time she left the stage).
Pirlipat? Are you confused? Good!
A central part of the original story was lost when Alexandre Dumas [he of The Three Musketeers] translated – and severely bowdlerized — Hoffmann’s tale into French. As Petipa and Tchaikovsky used Dumas’s version, one can begin to understand why the classic scenario falls so flat and leaves so much dramatic potential just beyond reach. Just why is Marie so obsessed with this really ugly toy? Just because she is a nice, kind-hearted girl en route motherhood? Bo-ring. You see, in the original tale Marie already knows that the wooden toy is not an ersatz baby.
The missing link of most Nutcrackers resides within a tale within the tale, one that Drosselmeier dangles before Marie across three bedtimes, “The Tale of Princess Pirlipat.” As brought to the stage by Spuck, this Princess is Aurora as spoiled 13-year-old Valley Girl. Already grossed-out by four over-eager and foppish suitors who chase her around with their lips puckered and going “mwah-mwah,” Pirlipat’s troubles only worsen when her father takes out a mouse. The Mouse Queen’s curse turns the girl into a nutcrackeress rabidly hungry for nuts, not roses. [As the queen, Elizabeth Wisenberg offers a pitch-perfect distillation of what is so scary about Carabosse] A handsome surfer dude/nerd prince [Alexander Jones, geeky, tender, masterful, as you desire] comes to Pirlipat’s rescue, only to be slimed in turn. Not passive at all, Marie will plunge this parallel universe in a quest to save him.
Everything in Nussknacker und Mausekönig has been has been reexamined and reconsidered by Christian Spuck. The score – jumbled up and judiciously reassigned – emerges completely refreshed and unpredictable: when was the last time you did NOT cringe at what was going on to the music for the “Chinese” dance? More than that (and many times more), Spuck will address the fact that many people can’t get enough of Tchaikovsky’s celesta&harp-driven “Sugarplum” variation [One minute 48 seconds, if you go by Fedoseyev]. Here, before we even get to the overture – placed way further down the line and, oh heaven, that music will be danced to for once — the action starts when a lonely automaton with a bad case of dropsy plays the Sugarplum theme on an…accordion. The same melody will return to haunt the action intermittently, refracted into a leitmotif, rather than sticking out as a sole “number.” By thoughtfully reassigning other parts of the score, the ballet loses some of what now seems offensive: grandma and grandpa use their canes for a slightly-off vaudeville number to the music of Marie’s solo, which makes them seem jaunty and spry rather than creaky old fools [the determined yet airborne Mélanie Borel and Filipe Portugal manage to suggest a whole lifetime in the theater. This sly duo would deserve to have their story told in a ballet all to themselves]; the “Arabian/Coffee” music is scooped up by a whirling Sugarplum fairy replete with tempting cupcake-dotted tutu [Elena Vostrotina, a tad ill at ease] ; instead of that embarrassing Turk with moustache and scimitar you get a horde of mice with whiskers all a-quiver…I think I’ve already blabbed too much. The whole evening feels like munching through a box of Cracker Jacks. Each caramelized kernel tastes so good you lose sight of hunting for the “surprise.”
Spuck takes infinite care to adapt the movement to each specific type of doll or creature. Indeed, at first only Marie (a.k.a. Clara in some versions) could be said to be the one person who dances…normally [the radiant and silken Meiri Maeda, whose face and body act without calling attention to the fact that she is acting]. Mechanical ones, in the vein of Hoffmann’s Olympia or Coppelia, use the beloved straight leg with flexed foot walk and stiff bust that follows, complete with those elbows bent up like pitchforks. That is, until Marie assumes they are real and the sharp edges soften. Raggedy dolls – such as the sarcastic and powder-wigged Columbine (Yen Han, as sly and ironic as the M.C. in Cabaret, but infinitely more elegant) – flop to the ground and then get swept up, crisply bent in two. Fritz’s army of timid tin soldiers wobble dangerously (and hilariously) as if fresh from the forge. Wheels of all varieties will be worn to shape and typify certain characters. (Sorry, I’m not going to spoil any more of these delightful surprises).
And Zurich’s Drosselmeier ain’t no harmlessly doting godfather. He is a moody and masterful manipulator. In Hoffmann’s tale, his hold over Marie stems from sitting rather eerily on the edge of her bed every night and enthralling her with fantastical bedtime stories until she can no longer tell the real from the unreal. To translate this, the set design involves a tiny stage within a stage on the stage where all – even Marie’s parents – fall under his spell. His costume evokes some of the more lunatic figures in children’s literature: Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter, The Cat in the Hat. And so will his movement. Have you ever watched marionettists at work? Their bodies dart and swoop and wiggle without pause. Their fingers are the scariest: flickering as rapidly as bats’ tongues. And Drosselmeier’s fingers are all over the place. As they delicately creep all over the feisty Marie, children and adults alike will judge him in their own ways. He swoops, he scuttles, he drops into second plié and sways it, his legs shoot out in high dévelopé kicks and flash-fast raccourcis. When the “Rat” theme devolves to not only Jan Casier’s hypnotic Drosselmeier but also to the coven of his twitchy doubles, the musical switch makes perfect sense.
The cozy auditorium of the Zurich opera house resembles a neo-Rococo jewel box. Spuck’s sparkling and multi-faceted Nutcracker nestles perfectly inside it.