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Boston Ballet

Samuel Zaldivar, Isaac Akiba, and Albert Gordon of Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker; photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

The Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House

By James Foritano

Is an old chestnut a weakness? The Nutcracker is an old chestnut a virtue. Having just come from a screening of the legendary Merce Cunningham’s spare, modern choreography at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston’s landmark“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” exhibition, I was distinctly aware of this weakness.

True, the costumes are stunning, the moves of the highly trained dancers breathtaking, but come on isn’t this all, at best, superfluous; at worst, heresy in the canon of contemporary dance, a canon which embraces Spartan scenery and dance movements which at least appear spontaneous movements one could possibly witness in a sports stadium or even on a particularly lively street corner?

Still, seated in the Boston Opera House’s elegant environs, I remembered not only Merce Cunningham’s rebellious spirit, but also the liberal spirit of the school which nurtured his creativity.  Practically any artistry deeply considered and passionately enacted was encouraged at Black Mountain College.

When The Nutcracker was first staged in 1892 at St. Pertersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, it was choreographed by the French wunderkind Petipa and based on a libretto taken from an E.T. A. Hoffmann story about the transformation of a wooden nutcracker into a prince among other transformations.

So, in the spirit of Black Mountain, I transformed my self into a subject of the Russian Czar, probably a high class if not a titled subject, and settled myself into a venue and an audience which very probably would have shown up my present surroundings as common, if not miserable.

Looking on with my thus altered sensibility, I enjoyed a spectacle of society in which even the help moved graciously and was picturesquely attired; where women set the standard of graciousness in dress and manner and where men were proverbial ‘bundles’ of elegant energy.

In the body of my new status as a titled subject of the czar, I was ok with this,  sometimes more than, or even much more than ok. Except, of course, when I wasn’t.

To what, you might ask, did I owe this miraculous suspension of my disbelief? Part of it was that this magical tale was framed through the outlook and considerably enlivened by the energies of youth. A magician in a small rolling cabinet, sort of like a food wagon of the present day, entrances a crowd of children in a decorous urban square. He’s an avatar of every shrewd magician so good he almost believes in himself (And maybe he does!) and these children, like children of any era, are wise enough to realize that one can’t allow critical judgment to interfere with the enjoyment of ‘magic.’

My inner child responded to this mostly lost wisdom with an enthusiasm that was very much leveraged by their enthusiasm and talent on stage. Both the children and their older schoolmates at the Boston Ballet School blended a natural enthusiasm with an accommodation of acting and dancing talent to a high degree. Kids and young adults can be charming on stage even when they’re staring like a deer caught in the stagelights; these young people were well trained to know their limits but respond to their potential. I applauded the ‘magic’ of their showmanship and thrilled to their growth.

Offset to their coltish talents were bevies of veteran dancers costumed simply in well-tailored mostly white and sparkly classical dress. Tutus shivered to exactingly ‘en point’ acrobatics. My titled body sat up, even schemed which door to approach when the tutus shivered to a stop and the ballerinas retired to their dressing tables.

If, on the other hand, the mesmerizing tutus shivered on for long enough to puncture my idle dreams, I came back to myself and simply slumped. Fortunately, my reveries, before going too stale, were often enough  interrupted pleasantly by graceful beauties who enjoyed a highly adequate partner already. Dancing couples paired up with the sprightliness of young wine; the maturity of vintage years.

Perhaps, along with the talent and showmanship of the cast, it was the balance and zest of Mikko Nissinen’s choreography which permitted both my contemporary and my historical persona to exist, mostly comfortably, with their different tastes and mind-sets.

Besides, with its magical story of benefits showered on deserving offspring of noble born and nobly talented parents, Nutcracker is definitely holiday fare and every holiday calls for some tolerance. And tolerance can be expanding, even ennobling. No?

(The Boston Ballet’s presentation of “The Nutcracker” continues through December 31 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston, Mass. For more information, visit