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Not one, but two NUTCRACKERS danced the same weekend in downtown Cleveland

Roy Berko

(Member, Dance Critics Association)

It’s that time of year.  Local theatres are staging all sorts of holiday fare.  Tiny Tims, Scrooges, elfs and Santas are traipsing their way across the boards.  And true to form, THE NUTCRACKER is marching and dancing.

Since Cleveland no longer has a professional ballet company, venues bring in the holiday necessity from other sources.  The same weekend, The Moscow Ballet presented its 20th anniversary GREAT RUSSIAN NUTCRACKER for two performances at the Music Hall, and The Joffrey Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra played for four performances with THE NUTCRACKER at the State Theatre.

The major question from those who knew I had seen both versions was, “Which production was better?”  Let’s examine the venues, the story lines, the sets and costumes, the music, and the level of dancing.

It is a shame to invite a quality dance company into the Music Hall in the Convention Hall complex.  Shame on the city of Cleveland and the county for allowing the facility to deteriorate as it has.  The once beautiful Music Hall, part of the Cleveland convention center complex, is now a tired venue with worn out carpeting and seats, moisture textured walls and ceiling, out of date lavatories, and a ripped front curtain with a hanging lining.  It is in this setting that the Moscow Ballet performed.

Since 1993, Moscow Ballet has gone into local areas and offered ballet students, from ages 7 to 16, the opportunity to audition, rehearse and perform with the professional company.  The students portray party children, mice, snowflakes, angels, and perform in the “around the world” segments.

The sparse evening audience at the Music Hall, consisting mainly, it appeared from the bouquets they were carrying, relatives of the child dancers, witnessed a very traditional version of the piece.

Entitled the GREAT RUSSIAN NUTCRACKER, it featured more traditional dancing, with Masha receiving the nutcracker prince from Uncle Drosselmeyer, but finds it destroyed by Fritz, her brother.  Distraught, she falls asleep, only to have a vision of the Mouse King and his fellow rodents fight the Nutcracker and his soldiers.  After the soldiers’ victory, Masha and her prince go on a wonderful adventure including a tour to the Snow Forest, and the Land of Peace and Harmony.   This version features much dancing by Masha and the Nutcracker prince, highlighted by the famous Grand Pas de Deux.

The Moscow Ballet’s version featured rather tired drop background drops and much used costumes.  But, what it lacked in visual beauty, it more than made up for with superb dancing by the lead performers.

The recorded music of the enchanting Tchaikovsky score sounded rather tinny in the vast space, with its outdated sound system.

The children were cute, sometimes in step, but received oohs and ahs from their relatives, and had the memorable experience of performing with an excellent company.

What can be more glorious than hearing the world class Cleveland Orchestra playing THE NUTCRACKER?  Usually nothing.  As expected, the orchestra, under the baton of Tito Munoz, was in fine tune, but those who are used to hearing them on the open Severance Hall stage, may have been dismayed by listening to the muted sounds coming from the under-the-stage orchestra pit.  That, added to the usual sound difficulty for those sitting on the first floor beneath the balcony-overhang, made for a less than thrilling experience.

The State Theatre is a visually glorious setting for the opulence of the Joffrey production.  Special effects included snowflakes dancing on the curtains before the production, a snow storm, gliding sleigh, a Christmas tree which grew before the wondering eyes of the audience from the stage level to the fly area, gorgeous costumes, full sets, and special lighting.  It all added up to making for a wonderful sight, but some might in the near sold-out audiences might question the sometimes languid pace of the performance.

Joffrey’s account, based on THE NUTCRACKER AND THE MOUSE KING by E.T.A. Hoffman, with choreography conceived by Robert Joffrey and supplemented by Gerald Arpino, is the traditional version to which American audiences have been exposed.  This edition takes place in a Victorian Parlor in the 1850s, moves to the Magical Battleground, the Land of Snow, the Kingdom of Sweets and finally back to the parlor.

The dancing was quite good, but with limited performance opportunities for Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, the show lacked some of the real ballet experience of the Moscow version.  The Joffrey segment where the dolls from around the world come to life was well danced and intriguing, with the children well integrated into the scenes.

The use of the children in the Joffrey version, and the quality of their performances, was far superior to the Moscow group.  Bravo to Willy Shrive, the Children’s Ballet Master, for his work with the youngsters.

While viewing these productions, older locals were probably drawn back to the glory days of Dennis Nahat’s Cleveland Ballet superb version, with the then wunderkindt’s Raymond Rodriquez and Karon Gabay in the starring roles.

Capsule judgement: It’s too bad that Cleveland doesn’t have a professional ballet company but has to invite groups from other places to provide the yearly THE NUTCRACKER holiday fix.  That negative was balanced by an opportunity for local dance aficionados to have the chance to view two entirely different versions of the Tchaikovsky composition.