A new/old classic

What’s new about the Moscow Ballet’s production of the holiday classic The Nutcracker is, well, something old.

Never before have Americans had a chance to see a version of the ballet so close to the original vision of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 work, contends Moscow Ballet producer Akiva Talmi.

American productions tend to highlight drama over dance, and are often told from the point of view of Clara, the young heroine. But the Moscow Ballet, in a flurry of patriotism spurred by their crisis-wracked country’s current economic distress, is bringing back the real thing.

“Times are tough, so we are very excited to come to your community and show the great side of Russia,” Talmi relates. “This creation of The Nutcracker has never been seen before. We wanted to bring [to America] the purest, most authentic, most marvelous [version] there was. It’s what Tchaikovsky created — it cannot get any better than this. It’s like bringing in original paintings [instead of reproductions].” (The Moscow Ballet’s version of the beloved Christmas story does feature new choreography by Sergei Bobrov and new costumes by Vladislav Kostine, however.)

The company embraces the ornate and powerful classical Russian style, yielding a dance-intensive production that’s unique among the countless presentations of The Nutcracker that have been staged, worldwide. The part of young Clara is played by a ballerina, not a child, which makes for a nontraditional but ultimately superior performance, Talmi maintains.

“It’s an adult-centered show, [in that] all 46 artists are top, top professionals,” he explains. “Patrons do not see anything less than a fully adult performance — artists that have been working on their craft for the past 20 years.”

The production features prima ballerina Marina Alexandrova, whose flawless dancing has reduced many reviewers to one-word judgments like “exquisite” (Dallas Morning News), “superlative” (Providence Journal) and “perfection” (Hamilton Spectator). The award-winning Dmitri Dmitriev dances the part of the Nutcracker Prince.

But this is a children’s story, after all, and young people are far from excluded, the producer is quick to add.

“It’s child-centered [too] because children play important, age-appropriate roles,” notes Talmi. “Some companies give children Baryshnikov-type steps to learn, and they can’t do it. You can’t give an Einstein formula to a child. Here, the children do simple, skipping steps, and it’s spectacular. The children sparkle like angels, like stars in the sky.”

It’s a tradition with the Moscow Ballet that the prima ballerina auditions local children to represent their city in each performance. A month ago, budding Asheville ballerinas were handpicked by Alexandrova. It’s an arrangement that benefits all, the producer maintains.

“We have a 70-year tradition [of] working with children in the Russian way. In [the Moscow Ballet], the adults have appropriate roles, and the children have the opportunity to work with great professionals,” he says, adding thoughtfully, “Your Ms. [Ann] Dunn [director of Asheville’s Fletcher School of Dance] has been working feverishly, getting the children ready.”

This is the Moscow Ballet’s sixth consecutive year of touring the United States. They’ve performed everywhere from New York City to Little Rock, Ark., but the graciousness they’ve encountered in the smaller venues gives them a special place in Talmi’s heart.

“In the smaller cities, [the reception] is very warm,” he enthuses. “It can be a very intimate and personal experience. The city turns on its ear. In Columbus, [Ohio], the mayor came out; the city gave us its blessing.”

Asheville’s doing that group one better, however: “We have been invited to be the grand masters of your Christmas parade; our prima ballerina will be in the parade,” Talmi says, with an audible smile in his voice.

Then he turns serious. Behind the splendor of The Nutcracker, explains Talmi, lurks the painful upheaval of postcommunist Russia. As the country strives to adapt to massive social and economic changes, food is scarce, and everyone’s struggling, he notes.

The producer submits a simple plea for support: “We are coming with a special message from Russia. We ask that the American people be especially supportive in our time of crisis, to help us save the country’s rebirth of democracy in the face of adversity, so that we won’t get back into tyranny. We thank the community for opening its doors to Russia in our quest for freedom.”

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