When Moscow Ballet brings its sumptuous Great Russian Nutcracker to the States, the company comes bearing gifts of major artistic accomplishment. Each year, two companies of 40 dancers each tour over 60 cities in the United States and Canada, averaging over 100 performances in two months time, offering a unique version of the classic Christmas treat served up with Eastern European flavor.
Moscow Ballet debuted in 1993 with its Great Russian Nutcracker, which is now in its 19th holiday season touring the U.S. Publicity photo.
For those who have seen countless iterations of The Nutcracker, the storyline of Moscow Ballet’s production has its own unique elements, and these twists are also bound to awe those who have yet to see the ballet. In the Great Russian Nutcracker, as in typical American takes on the tale, the story begins with a family Christmas party, and a generous uncle who bestows a nutcracker to the hosts’ daughter, who is commonly known as Clara, but goes by Masha in the Moscow version. That same evening, the nutcracker is broken during some rough play and the girl is despondent. Later, she dreams of a fierce battle between the Christmas toys and some pesky mice in which the mighty nutcracker leads the toys to victory and then turns into a handsome prince. Here is where the similarities between the two Nutcrackers end.
The American brand of The Nutcracker follows the original 1892 storyline of a young girl’s foray into an exotic dreamworld of candy and sweets, The Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Russian version delivers a more romantic vision. “It is a beautiful love story between Masha and her Nutcracker Prince,” explains Nataliya Miroshynk, a solo dancer with Moscow Ballet and five-year veteran of its Great Russian Nutcracker. Although the first act of the story is basically the same as the traditional incarnation, the second follows Masha as additional characters from Russian folklore, including the Snow Maiden and Father Christmas, guide her to a place called The Land of Peace and Harmony. In lieu of characters like Mother Ginger, who greet Clara in The Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Masha is welcomed by a cadre of international emissaries from Russia, Spain, France, China, and Arabia to a place where, according to Miroshynk, “all creatures live in accord with one another.” The Sugar Plum Fairy is replaced with the Dove of Peace, and at the end of the second act, Masha is an adult woman who performs a grand pas de deux of love with her prince. The traditional Waltz of the Flowers concludes the performance.
Something else that may surprise audiences in Moscow Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is the style of dancing. “In the Moscow Ballet we dance in the style of Vaganova, which is different than the American style,” says Miroshynk. “It is more flowing and smoother.” The style to which she refers is named after the famous Russian ballet instructor Agrippina Vaganova, who literally wrote the book on Russian ballet technique, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet. The Vaganova method instigates movement from the torso, condones deliberate hand gestures, and often includes powerful turns and very high jumps. Igor Antonov, a native of Ukraine and an Artistic Associate with the Richmond Ballet explains, “Generally speaking, the Russian style has a long tradition, having started centuries ago. It’s had a long time to develop into a distinct movement style, marked by big movement and strong technique. Especially for the male dancers, the focus is on big jumps, a high level of presentation and bravado, all while keeping the technique intact. The American style is newer, still developing. The movement is more contemporary, and based a lot on what George Balanchine did, with his neo-classical movement. It’s the same technique and steps, but altered slightly, stretched a bit.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century, was trained in the Vaganova method, which distinguished him in America. And if you’ve ever seen Baryshnikov dance, the Great Russian Nutcracker will bring to mind his gravity-defying high jumps and beautifully centered movements.
The second act of Moscow Ballet’s performance also incorporates puppets by famed Russian set designer and puppeteer Valentin Federov. Puppets are important to Christmas tradition in many parts of Russia, hence their appearance in this production. “Puppetry has been used a lot in religious traditions for centuries, dating back to shamanistic rituals,” says Heidi Rugg, director of Barefoot Puppets, a touring company based in Virginia. “The roots of puppetry are grounded in this magical tradition.” On Christmas Eve, puppeteers in pre-revolutionary Russia would travel from house to house bearing a vertep—a portable puppet theater whose name translates as “secret place”—on a sleigh. Puppet shows depicting stories from the Bible, along with sung Christmas carols, would be presented to families to celebrate the birth of Christ. For the Great Russian Nutcracker, Federov designed 6′ tall stick puppets in homage to the vertep, steeping the show even further in Russian tradition.
Moscow Ballet comes to The Paramount Theater for performances on December 21 and 22. Its message is one of peace and harmony, which may be something you hear a lot during the holiday season, but it’s a rare delight to get it through the medium of dance.