Sunday, December 21, 2008


Here in San Francisco the increase in high-definition-video performing arts content is leading to an increase in the venues offering such documents. As I recently observed, there are advantages to presenting this material in a public place, as opposed to delivering it to individual computers. The Vogue Theatre, which claims to be the oldest operating movie theater in San Francisco, is now one of these venues, although it seems to be equipped only for projecting video recordings, rather than "live" transmissions. I just experienced one of these recordings of a performance of The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, made on January 2, 2007. This production is a thorough reconception of the original scenario by Marius Petipa executed by Mikhail Shemyakin, described in his Wikipedia entry as "a Russian (ethnic Kabardian) painter, stage designer, sculptor and publisher, and a controversial representative of the nonconformist art tradition of St. Petersburg." Shemyakin clearly had little interest to conforming to any of Petipa's dramatic ideas; but, given how little Petipa conformed to the letter of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman's "Nutcracker and the King of Mice," there is no reason to expect that he receive better treatment in the 21st century.
Shemyakin has been living in New York since 1981, and it is clear that he has thrived on Western influences. In the spirit of the way in which The Nutcracker is usually conceived, his production is almost a candy store of influences that he has appropriated and refashioned into a ballet that still honors the structure of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's score. Most importantly, however, is the way in which he has rejected Hoffman's original Christmas setting, choosing instead to develop a fantasy world that provides an escape from the most distasteful character traits of bourgeois prosperity. He captures much of Hoffman's original darkness but shades it with a broad range of other sources.
Most important of those sources may be Angela Carter, whose "Company of Wolves" makes a clear case for the "Red Riding Hood" story being a tale of both the agonies and joys of puberty. While Hoffman presents Marie as a child receiving a very special present, Shemyakin chose to endow her with blossoming sexuality that colors her relationship to her toy. That relationship is ultimately consummated by having her (rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy) dance the second act pas de deux with her "companion," who has just shed his "impassive toy" mask and is revealed as a young man of her age. Shemyakin uses this moment to blend his sources, shifting from Red Riding Hood's puberty to an adagio duet whose roots can clearly be traced back to the Balcony Scene from the Romeo and Juliet ballet set to the score by Sergei Prokofiev. Never before have I seen such an erotically charged pas de deux (in any ballet); and never before has that eroticism seemed so relevant. Kirill Simonov, who conceived the actual choreography, deserves considerable praise for realizing this vision, as does Irina Golub for dancing it so passionately.
I also suspect that, perhaps as a result of leaving the Soviet Union, Shemyakin developed an acquaintance with the work of Mervyn Peake, particularly with regard to his Gormenghast books. The decision to begin the scenario in a vast and extremely sinister kitchen struck me as a nod to the way in which Peake launched the critical conflict of his Gormenghast epic. If recent stagings of Hansel and Gretel have focused on the theme of hunger, the "real world" of this Nutcracker is one of abundant food and the gluttony it engenders. Hoffman never goes so far as to suggest that Marie was an abused child; but, between Shemyakin's suggestions that her father hungers for more than good and Golub's composure in dancing this role, that suggestion carries at least moderate believability. Indeed, gluttony gets that last word at the conclusion of the apotheosis, when the "candy-land" set is recast as an enormous wedding cake, with Marie and her Nutcracker reduced to bride-and-groom dolls atop the cake while the mice from the battle in the first act are nibbling away at the lower layers (possibly with a nod to Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham).
In the wrong hands Shemyakin's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach could have been tedious. However, in Simonov he had someone who understood how to make the language of dance speak with dramatic clarity; and in conductor Valery Gergiev he had a conductor who understood how to pace Tchaikovsky's music to the progress of the narrative. Most important, however, is that the Mariinsky dancers have been trained with an inherent understanding that dance is not about the movement of the body but about the modulation of the body's energy. The character that Golub made of Marie did not emerge from posture and gesture but from her command of her entire body (which apparently had internalized the basics of the Graham contraction along with all of Agrippina Vaganova's basics of classical ballet technique). This was hardly the conventional Nutcracker I might find down the street at the War Memorial Opera House; but it was worth hiking for about half an hour to a movie house in another neighborhood to see a high-definition projection. It may even be worth my deciding to add ballet to my current DVD collection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's not Marie in this version; it's Masha.