Food for thought

Despite all its German names, The Nutcracker contains all the necessary ingredients of an American holiday classic: a little violence, a little drama, lots of overindulgence and a fairy-tale ending to boot.

The beloved ballet is often performed several times during the holiday season by local dance companies. It’s a chance for young dancers to show off their skills — and even the tiniest ballerinas can find a place in the holiday-party crowd at Clara’s house.

Just in case you need a plot refresher, this harbinger of the Christmas season begins with a lavish party at the Stahlbaum home. Young Clara and her girlfriends play on one side of the room while brother Fritz runs amok with his pals on the other, until their godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, appears with toys for all the children.

To Clara he presents the Nutcracker doll, which lasts about five minutes before her bratty brother breaks it. That night, after all the guests have left, the wounded Nutcracker comes to life and battles the Mouse King (apparently the Stahlbaums had an absolutely royal rodent problem).

After the Nutcracker triumphs, he turns into a prince — a fitting reward — and whisks Clara away on an around-the-globe tour. As guests of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the two are entertained by the exotic dancing desserts of many lands.

It’s rich entertainment — but The Moscow Ballet offers a less indulgent alternative in The Great Russian Nutcracker (though their version does feature 50 dancers, 11 backdrops and 400 19th-century-style costumes).

This year is the touring company’s 10th, and as part of their anniversary celebration, they’ve decided to do things a little differently — namely, integrate some up-to-the-minute themes into the old story.

“Tchaikovsky created the first version of The Nutcracker, based on the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffman, in 1890,” explains Akiva Talmi, the ballet company’s producer. “We’ve recreated a fresh, new and exciting show for 2002.”

The Moscow Ballet version exchanges Clara for Masha, who attends a Christmas party at a Victorian-era Russian palace. Party gifts include mythological animal toys such as unicorns and dragons — all snatched from folklore — as well as the requisite Nutcracker.

In Masha’s post-party slumber, she dreams she’ll fall in love with a prince, while the Nutcracker comes to life and battles the Mouse King. Then Masha awakes to travel with her prince through a Siberian forest into the land of Peace and Harmony.

The Great Russian Nutcracker draws on earlier Russian stagings in which Masha is danced by an adult throughout the performance, explains Laura Lee, the company’s publicist.

“Instead of watching another dancer as the Sugar Plum Fairy in her dreams, she takes the lead, making it a clear coming-of-age tale,” Lee adds.

The idea for the new approach came just over a year ago. “Our first peace-and-harmony scenes opened right after Sept.11th [2001],” Lee remembers. “It wasn’t planned that way; it just happened.”

The idea evolved instead from designer Valentin Fedorov, who was working on new sets. Inspired by Russian folk artists and French-naive artists such as Henri Rousseau, Fedorov took images of bears and other Russian folkloric animals — like those unicorns and dragons — and recreated them with a French-naive interpretation. The result is whimsical and brightly colored childlike designs.

Surrounded by these otherworldly creatures, Fedorov had to ask, “Why can’t people live together in harmony, like the animals?”

“The second act of The Nutcracker is always this voyage around the world,” Lee explains. “Valentin really wanted to bring out the idea of peaceful travel. It’s not just about an exotic adventure, but about bringing people together.

“It fits with the ballet experience,” she adds. “We bring dancers from Russia to perform in the United States, and they can’t even speak the language, but they’re able to communicate.

And so the ballet’s second scene gets a facelift of sorts. The music is still Tchaikovsky’s, and the same variations still pirouette and arabesque across the stage. And Chinese and Arabian-styled dances still put in an appearance.

But the food aspect is absent.

“Instead of traveling to all the different lands, Masha only travels to one place — the Land of Peace and Harmony — where everyone comes together,” Lee explains.

Since the 2001 opening, The Moscow Ballet has transformed the peace-and-harmony notion into a full-blown event.

“We’ve had more resources this year to really fully realize [Fedorov’s] vision,” says Lee, alluding to the company’s partnership with Saturn, the car company.

“This year we’ve expanded, adding a puppet element,” she reveals. Puppets, ranging from 3- to 19-feet tall and operated by one or more dancers, personify the magically transformed folkloric toys.

Never mind puppetry’s current trendiness in classical-theater productions — the Russians apparently got there first.

“Puppet theater enjoys a long and rich tradition in Russia,” Talmi says. “Russian artists helped elevate puppetry to a serious theatrical art form throughout Europe.”

While dancing with puppets may be no new thing for The Moscow Ballet, it should be a treat for audiences. And who knows — maybe this feast-for-thought will prove more satisfying than the sugary-sweet Nutcracker of the past.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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