With The Nutcracker—The Rat King, the very young local company Metropolitan Ballet takes on a full-scale traditional Nutcracker but with a twist. “Full-scale” means an evening-length production, with an orchestra, guest artists for the leading roles (Marie/the Sugarplum Fairy, here the same character, her Cavalier, and several others), and everything you might remember from your childhood Nutcrackers. The twist is a little harder to explain, but it seems that Marie’s coming-of-age-story is paired with another coming-of-age-story—this time of a young rat prince who turns from evil to good.
Like all Nutcrackers, this one has its high points: a charming Chinese scene with dancers peeking around long colored silks (created by guest choreographer Shen Pei), three good doll dances, the most talented male child dancer I’ve ever seen, an acrobatic Russian dance (created and performed by another guest, Slavko Billy), a very clear demonstration of Marie’s purity of heart in choosing the nutcracker over Drosselmeyer’s fancier toys, and a creditable performance by the Kenwood Symphony.
Unfortunately, the performance also betrays the lack of a firm directorial hand and strong artistic vision (Metropolitan Ballet founder Erik Sanborn directed and created most of the choreography). Costumes are a mishmash of periods and styles—heavy brocades, barely visible in the dim overhead lighting, sharing space with skater dresses and completely contemporary dresses for the littler girls. The choreography blends some time-honored traditional versions, mostly for solos and duets, with muddy crowd scenes of uncertain musicality. At its worst, in the snow scene, the choir necessary for that piece actually appears on stage in its black and white looking like a bunch of Puritans behind the snowflakes, which meanwhile is missing all the mystery and drama of the music. This lack of large-scale vision and firm direction is also apparent in the dancers and dancing: I saw plenty of bobbles, indicative of insufficient rehearsal; heard clattering pointe shoes; and spotted a few other miscues—a dancer with a red tag on her costume, a dancer caught off guard by a lighting miscue. Meanwhile, the plot twist isn’t developed enough to add much; it merely dilutes the existing story, turning Marie from a valiant heroine to a sweet, but ineffective, girl.
I’m not sure how I feel about Sanborn’s recourse to imported guest artists. On the one hand, this allows him to show a good grand pas de deux (the climax of the ballet) with beautiful deliberation from Violeta Angelova and sure partnering from Momchil Mladenov (although I must add that he’s headed for injury if he doesn’t start putting his heels down on his landings).
On the other hand, what does this create on the local level? My favorite thing about Metropolitan Ballet (at least in these large-scale productions) is the opportunity it gives to the many local ballet dancers who don’t fit in the limited rosters of James Sewell Ballet or Minnesota Dance Theatre—dancers generally not of the first rank but with ability and discipline. They are worth seeing and would be more so if given more opportunities to perform. It’s common practice to import Sugarplums and Cavaliers, but they cast these local dancers in the cold—more so than imported professionals do to their fellow professionals at MDT. I’d rather see a few local dancers step up to the roles—given time, I think they could. Overall, if Sanborn scaled back and consolidated his efforts on what remains, we’d have a better Nutcracker altogether—and one with a homegrown holiday spirit.
Nutcracker—The Rat King, Dec. 16, 2 p.m., Northrop Auditorium