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Glorious and traditional: Moscow Ballet.

The Russian Variation
By Mae G. Banner

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker
The Palace, Dec. 18

The Capital District boasts a profusion of Nutcrackers presented each December on stages from Glens Falls to Albany. This year, we broke our own record and had nine different productions of the ballet that’s become a holiday ritual.

The new entry was a touring production by the Moscow Ballet, whose dancers come from the Moscow Choreographic Institute and the Vaganova Institute. The 50 eloquent dancers, augmented by more than a dozen youngsters from regional ballet schools, flooded the stage at the Palace in Albany just a week before Christmas.

Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker was a visual delight filled with enchanting colors and patterns, but without the drama and excitement we’re accustomed to in even the smallest American productions. Even the battling mice seemed almost sedate in their measured dancing.

The wonderful thing about Nutcracker is that the ballet is able to expand and contract, to accommodate variations and inventions peculiar to local cultures. There’s a Harlem Nutcracker to Duke Ellington’s arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s music. In Utah, Mother Ginger is transformed into a giant beehive filled with little dancing bees. In Albany, David Otto’s Capital Ballet Company adds a Dutch variation.

Moscow Ballet’s choreographer Anatoli Emelianov concentrates on harmonious pictures, superbly danced. He is not interested in character, narrative, or special effects (no tree that grows), but in the purity of the dancing. In contrast to the dramatic action of American productions I’ve seen, the Moscow dancers step through their roles with elegance and refined technique, but no drive. They show poetic (and sometimes gently comical) moving pictures, especially the lovely arrangements of living snowflakes who wear snowball crowns and carry glittering icicle wands in each hand—a pageant without a story.

This Nutcracker is about beauty for its own sake. The tempos are markedly slower than what Americans are used to. Lyrical movements of the arms provide a romantic balance to strong pinpoint legs. Instead of a Sugarplum and her Cavalier, we follow Masha (that’s Clara in other productions) and her Nutcracker Prince from her living room to a Land of Peace and Harmony (no cloying candies, but an array of international duets with the leading dancers framed by varying groups of local youngsters).

The wildest of these duets was the Russian, saved for last. Alexander Polomarchuk performed remarkable split leaps high in the air and Zhanna Sokalskaya knocked off an amazing set of speedy fouettes. This red-costumed pair were real applause- getters with the fastest, most athletic choreography in the ballet.

Drosselmeier, the magician and toymaker, guides the dance from start to finish. He leads Masha and the Prince through the Snow Land to the expansive international fair, where they see the familiar Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and French (sometimes called Marzipan) dancers, all in brilliant, bandbox-fresh costumes, doing their lovely or exotic turns.

Designer Valentin Fedorov applies a comforting Russian touch with backdrops painted like glowing picture books, dreamscapes of rounded towers, giant flowers and butterflies. The international scenes include giant pastel- colored dancing animals in the background, such as might be seen at a village fair: for the Spanish, a woolly bull; for the French, a big sky-blue sheep and her lamb; for the Arabic, a pair of nodding, bumbling elephants; for the Chinese, a huge pink paper dragon with many legs; and, for the Russian, a big, huggable bear. The many children in the audience giggled appreciatively at this friendly menagerie.

As Tchaikovsky’s music builds to its grand climax, Drosselmeier brings out the Flowers, six women in long frothy orange tutus and their tuxedoed partners, who dance enchantingly before a backdrop of colonnades and garlands.

At last, Tatiana Predeina as Masha and Vladimir Statni as the Prince dance the final empyrean duet that’s usually done by Sugarplum and her Cavalier. Here, Emelianov retains the traditional choreography—a hundred-year-old legacy from Lev Ivanov (Petipa’s assistant at the Maryinski Theater in St. Petersburg). It is glorious, so wedded to the music that no choreographer would dare to tamper with it.

Predeina is the ethereal ideal of the ballerina, with tiny steps on point, multiple pirouettes and steely balances on one toe. Statni is big, yet velvety in his spins and traveling leaps. The group finale brings all the couples forward in a polonaise. The flowers return, bending back and sinking to their knees in a half-circle around Masha and her Prince. Drosselmeier makes his final bows to the couple and all wave farewell.

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