Over the years, "The Nutcracker" has become the people's ballet—a dance production that has become classic in part because of the wide appeal its Christmas tie-in has generated. And the American Ballet Theatre and Mikhail Baryshnikov production of "The Nutcracker" is a classic performance of this classic ballet. It features a young and athletic Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker/Prince at the height of his career, just three years after he defected from the Soviet Union and revitalized dance in the United States. The production is also a milestone because it marks the first time that Baryshnikov ventured into the world of choreography.
Filmed for television in 1977 without a live audience (so there is better quality sound and no applause or other distractions), "The Nutcracker" blends E.T.A. Hoffman's tale of a young girl's Christmas Eve dream with Tchaikovsky's classical score and Lev Ivanov's ballet, which was created in 1892. With Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the National Philharmonic and additional music provided by the Boys of Desborough School Chorus, the Baryshnikov production fuses an exhilarating blend of music and dance.
It begins with a deep-voiced narrator and the opening of presents scene as families gather together around a tall Christmas tree in the parlor of a Victorian-era home. For the opening, the lighting is soft and uniform, which illuminates the stage with a minimal amount of shadows and provides a gauzy visual texture. The first third of the ballet sets up the dream sequence, and all of the children rush to the Christmas tree to open their presents, after which the Children's Galop is performed, with the boys acting out their fantasies with the swords and helmets and such that they received as gifts. Then the wizard/puppeteer Drosselmeyer (Alexander Minz) lifts his Dracula-like cape and produces three dolls, which dance in turn. Throughout the dance, the expressionistic backgrounds and realistic stage movements remind us that this is a story as well as a ballet, and the dancers' expressions reflect that unbridled joy of Christmas as they scamper across the stage on their toy horses brandishing toy swords. But Clara (Gelsey Kirkland, performing at the peak of her career) receives something special. She's given a nutcracker, and when her brother pulls off the head and it's reattached, the dream sequence begins, assisted by Drosselmeyer, who works like a Svengali to cast and then remove his spell over the young girl.
Clara dreams of the puppet show that all the children saw earlier, where a Mouse King (Marcos Paredes) battled a prince, and she envisions the Nutcracker dancing with leaping grand jetés (as only the muscular Baryshnikov can do them). Then tuxedoed dancers with mouse heads and tails—not furry full-body suits—dance around her and she cowers with her candle. The ballet is shot with multiple cameras, and from time to time there's an overhead shot, a ground-level shot, or a panoramic shot, sometimes one superimposed upon the other or used as a fade-in, fade-out transition.
The choreography in this "Nutcracker" version is excellent, though not without some goofy moments—as when the Mouse King plays with his ears in a very unmenacing way, or when the dancers hop the way a two year old might, up and down, in a simple cadence. Those strange steps aside, the dancers' movements and the movement of the dancers on stage are wonderfully fluid and illustrative of the tale that the ballet tries to tell as a kind of mimed performance. Near the end of the first act, the Mouse King ends up on his back, legs up in the air, while the Prince, mortally wounded after their encounter, lies stretched out on the ground like a Christ figure and bathed in light. From this crucial fulcrum, the ballet turns to pure fantasy. And from this point, the soft overhead lighting shifts to traditional spotlights with a darkened stage or one colored to reflect the character of the various dances, and dramatic shadows.
It will come as no surprise to ballet lovers that the Waltz of the Snowflakes (the one dance choreographed not by Baryshnikov, but by Vasily Vainonen), the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, and the Waltz of the Flowers are the most elaborate in terms of the choreography and also camerawork. There are moments where the camera zooms on Baryshnikov as he leaps out of a scene, but it's a credit to the artist that he allows just as many close-ups and lingering cameras on the other dancers.
Just as the stage set is a combination of minimalism, realism, and expressionism, the costumes reflect the same wide range. When the Waltz of the Flowers occurs, for example, you have to look closely to actually see how the tops of the dancers' dresses faintly resemble petals. And yet, for the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Baryshnikov has the dancers in their white tutus and feathery headpieces assemble and reassemble in various designs which, shot from the overhead cameras, draw attention to those snowflake-like shapes. When the ballet ends with Clara in close-up looking out at the camera through a frost-covered window out at the snowflakes, we get a marvelous sense of closure.
There's something about color film stock from the Seventies that doesn't age well. Or maybe the film wasn't the best quality to begin with. Whatever the case, while the picture quality is by no means inferior, there are still moments, especially when the stage lighting goes azure, when the dancers' faces and bodies become ever-so-slightly fuzzy, and there's a barely discernable graininess at other times. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1, and it looks no worse stretched out for an enhanced 4:3 mode on widescreen televisions than it does on the original pan and scan.
Audio options are Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Stereo. The 5.1 is by far superior, with full stereo separation and plenty of rear speaker matrixed effects.
There are no extras.
The dancing is beautiful, the choreography is superb, the set design and costumes are appropriately rich and textured, and the music is flawless. In short, this performance of "The Nutcracker" is one that's worth adding to your Christmas collection.