Bringing Back (and Tweaking) Balanchine's 'Nutcracker' in Philly

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 16, 2021

Philadelphia Ballet returns to the Academy of Music with George Balanchine's production of "The Nutcracker" after a skipped year.

In an interview earlier this month, artistic director Angel Corella spoke about what it took for the large cast to come back after a year away from performing live, and for audiences two years since they have seen Balanchine's version of "The Nutcracker" onstage.

"The Nutcracker"showcases Balanchine neoclassical technique and provides a range of principal, soloist, and character parts, even as it preserves key choreography from the Russian Imperial Ballet where he trained. Corella also has cast members play separate roles, and gives corps de ballet, soloists, and principals opportunities to switch out parts throughout the extended run. "They are 100% ready," Corella assured.

Last year, the company streamed their filmed 2019 production of "The Nutcracker" on their website.

In addition to being a showcase for dancers, many have cited "The Nutcracker" as their first experience performing as part of the large children's cast, which made them want to become professional ballet dancers.

In addition to the lead characters of Marie, her rascally brother Fritz, and the Nutcracker Prince, there are Philadelphia Ballet School of Dance students onstage portraying party guests, mice, and soldiers who battle the Mouse King, and the youngest group are the angelic musicians who float in with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Corella said that the Covid year working remotely was difficult for everyone, but particularly for the students waiting out the months of training remotely. "It was hard for them to stay motivated when they were at home, holding onto the countertops instead of a barre and not really knowing what was going to happen during the pandemic or when they would be coming back."

But by this fall when they were allowed to come back to in-person training in the studios, Corella said they were ready to pick up where they left off and were totally engaged even with the extra safety precautions in place.

It was a new normal for everyone. The professional dancers with class and full days of rehearsals adjusted to daily testing and working in isolation pods. Corella and his staff have been vigilant about sustaining daily Covid safety measures. The professional dancers kept to their daily regimens making all the necessary adjustments to work at home, continuing to rehearse and collaborate with choreographers and ballet masters remotely.

By late November, with preparations for "The Nutcracker" in full swing, Corella was hands-on checking in on the four studios at the company's North Broad St. headquarters, where the company was back rehearsing Nutcracker and other ballets that will premiere in 2022. Principal Dancers Mayara Pinero and Zecheng Liang looked fabulous even in rehearsal garb and nailed the technical artistry when rehearsing show stopping Sugar Plum and Cavalier pas de deux.

In the halls other dancers were warming up waiting for the afternoon sessions. Since becoming director of the company in 2014, Corella has continued to refine "The Nutcracker", particularly its first act Christmas party scenes that require acting from the children, tweaked with better pacing, less holiday pageantry and more naturalized performances. Corella doesn't want it to look too rehearsed or mechanical. "I want them to live the moment in these scenes."

Balanchine's divertissements in the second act 'Land of the Sweets' divertissements feature 'exotic' dances from around the world, and is a showcase for Balanchine's virtuosic neoclassic style. But some of the scenes have come under deserved scrutiny for conveying caricatures — gestures and costuming in the 'Tea' dance viewed today as demeaning representations of Chinese culture, and the sexualizing of the "Arabian" Coffee solo.

In consultation with the Balanchine Trust, that scene has been re-conceived to be more authentic to Chinese heritage. "We have to follow the Balanchine Trust and if there were a decision from them, a consensus of the other companies allowed to perform the production, we would be on board."

Another change this year is the thrilling Snowflake ensemble at the end of the first act — a virtuosic showcase for the women's corps, which in the past was serenaded by the children's choir (alternating performances of the Girls or Boys choirs of Philadelphia singing from a balcony box).

But this year that was not possible, so that section of the score will be exclusively orchestral. Otherwise, one of the best reasons to go to the Nutcracker in the historic opera house is to hear the Ballet's full orchestra play Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's score conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron.

"Coming out of the Covid year, we have been optimistic, but it is still a question mark how people are going to react to coming back to the theater."

But Corella said that ticket sales so far have been promising with many of the performances already selling out.

This run of "The Nutcracker" will feature many of the newer dancers that have advanced through the ranks in the past two years. The company remains one of only four that is licensed to perform Balanchine's celebrated production, first choreographed in the 1950s for The New York City Ballet. Philadelphia Ballet (formerly Pennsylvania Ballet) has been staging it since 1968.

The Philadelphia Ballet production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" runs through December 31 at the Academy of Music on Broad & Locust St. in Philadelphia. For more information and tickets visit the Philadelphia Ballet website.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.