NEW YORK -- "Intimate" isn't a word you normally think of to describe "The Nutcracker," that classic holiday tale of a girl and her dreamlike adventures with militaristic mice, a wooden Nutcracker toy, a dashing price and a fairy realm filled with magical beings.
But choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's production for American Ballet Theatre, now in its second year, is full of charming and, yes, intimate touches that suggest to kids, tantalizingly, that Clara's fantasy is perhaps not as far-fetched as they thought.
Well, maybe the second-act Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a total fantasy. But one of the loveliest touches of Ratmansky's first act, the great Christmas party at the Stahlbaum house, is how he brings it closer to a normal home – opening it in the kitchen, of all places.
Yes, it's a kitchen to die for, with cool pots and pans and nice tiles, enough to make real-estate crazed New Yorkers salivate (not to mention the dancing servants). But it's still a family kitchen.
Then there are the kids. Ratmanksy gives us children's behavior typical of, well, kids at a holiday party on a sugar rush. In other words, they cry – especially one little girl who can't seem to hold it together. And they stomp their feet and have tantrums. (In fact, Ratmansky seems to have invented a new step called the "tantrum pas de chat" – same as the classic step, but with the feet landing in a petulant thud.)
In any case, all that real-kid behavior is especially reassuring if you've brought your own little kid to an evening show and they're a little cranky. (Yes, we speak from experience.)
There are certain downsides to the intimate feel of ABT's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They include those moments where you really want grandeur, on the scale of George Balanchine's famous version for New York City Ballet: the Mice vs. Nutcracker battle, for example, seems scaled down too far, and the growing Christmas tree, awe-inspiring in the Balanchine version, is decidedly underwhelming here.
On the other hand, the children are given more of a chance to act, and the smaller stage brings their facial expressions closer to the kids in the audience. On Wednesday evening, Mikaela Kelly as Clara, Theodore Elliman as the Nutcracker Boy and Kai Monroe as Fritz were all fun to watch – as was the adorable Justin Souriau-Levine as the Little Mouse (you only saw his unmasked face at the curtain call, but boy, that smile lit up the house.)
Of course, many adults come to see the grown-up dancing, and in Ratmansky's version, that comes not from the Sugar Plum Fairy, who has a small role, but from the grown-up Clara and Prince – roles danced at this performance (and the only time this season) by the luminous pair of Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg.
Their entrance would have been exciting even if it hadn't been Hallberg's first appearance with ABT since his much-heralded debut as a premier dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow (he now shares his time between the two companies.) These equally gorgeous dancers, with their stellar technique and elegant presence, also happen to exude a lovely chemistry. With their playful glances and frequent smiles, it looked like they were truly having fun.
Or falling in love – in Ratmansky's version, they are the same couple who first meet in their youth, and their union ends with a proposal of marriage.
But before that happy moment, there are usual second-act diversions: The Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances, the Nutcracker's sisters, the little Polichinelles who live in Mother Ginger's skirt. And the Flowers, decked out in layers of pink, accompanied here by four energetic bees – strong male dancers who add a jolt of energy to the traditional waltz. (The only quibble: their entertainingly comic headpieces detract from their serious dancing.)
The best dancing, though, is saved for the older Prince and Princess (Hallberg and Murphy), and though the children with you probably won't notice, their pas de deux is challenging and deeply satisfying, when danced with confidence. Check out the lift where the prince hoists his princess up by one leg. Kids, do not try that at home. At least wait a few years.