Opera ballet

A proudly unsentimental Nutcracker at the Paris Opera Ballet

PARIS — “The Nutcracker” isn’t a mandatory Christmas fare at the Paris Opera Ballet; it hasn’t been played here for five years. But this year, the staging of Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet is in full swing at the Opéra Bastille, although neither the decor nor the ballet are particularly festive.

The Bastille theater is huge, cold and impersonal, Nureyev’s Nutcracker exactly the same. There’s almost nothing not odd about this version, nominally based on the original 1892 ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s glorious score for the Mariinsky Ballet. Although Nureyev offers us the traditional party scene, a fight between the Rat King and the Nutcracker, snowflakes and the various national dances that characterize the final act, his production departs from tradition (as well as logic and theatrical sense) in several ways. .

Clara, the child heroine of the ballet, is danced by an adult (Wednesday evening Léonore Baulac), just like her brother Fritz (Adrien Couvez). It is not the Nutcracker doll who turns into a prince, but Drosselmeyer (Germain Louvet), in Act 1, a vaguely menacing but strangely insignificant character. There are snowflakes, but no Kingdom of the Sweets or Sugarplum Fairy. (Its variation is danced by Clara as part of the final grand pas de deux.) The Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and “Pastoral” dances of Act Two are performed in the salon setting of Act One; the conceit is that family and party guests now populate Clara’s dreamlike imagination.

These concepts could be suitable if Nureyev had succeeded in infusing the production with a coherent theatrical logic. But this is not the case. The adult dancers look childish and unconvincing. Drosselmeyer, whose gift of the Nutcracker doll sets the plot in motion, has neither mystery nor ambiguity; he is reduced to hiding in an eye patch and large cape in Act 1, and loitering off the side of the stage as a minor Dickensian character by the end of Act 2.

Without reading the program notes, it’s nearly impossible to figure out that Drosselmeyer is also the Prince, and I can’t imagine many people recognizing Clara’s family as the leaders of the national dances. (I didn’t.) The Waltz of Flowers has no flowers and little waltz. Instead, we get a rigidly regimented corps de ballet in gold costumes and white wigs.

Which brings us to the costumes and set, by Nicholas Georgiadis. These are stupidly dull at first, with the darkest brown living room ever for the first act (the Christmas tree, a non-event in this version, pushed to the very back of the room) and the guests at the party in depressing dark tones.

Later, Mr. Georgiadis becomes opulent in a final ballroom scene, complete with candelabra and chandeliers. Neither these sets nor the staging offer the slightest trace of magic and fantasy; an essential quality for the success of a “Nutcracker”.

And then there is the choreography. Although attributed to Nureyev “after” (ballet language for based on) Petipa and Ivanov, parts of this version and its general concept come from a 1934 Soviet production by Vassily Vainonen. But Nureyev was not inclined to leave well enough alone; he never neglects to provide three stages where one will do.

The dance is difficult and awkward in the extreme; strange little rhythms and accents permeate the variations, everything is composed for maximum difficulty; the dancers often arrive late in the poses or on the music because it’s too hard to get stuffed in all the steps.

Nureyev’s instincts are also extraordinarily unmusical. In the increasingly climactic passage that Balanchine uses in his version for the magical growth of the Christmas tree, we see the mice tossing Clara’s doll for an endless amount of time. For the music during which, in the traditional version, the little prince tells the story of the battle with the Sugar Plum Fairy, Nureyev masked figures with huge doll heads that threaten Clara for another prolonged and boring period. . There are several moments in the ballet where the ensemble files in silence and waits for the music to begin. It’s almost embarrassingly awkward.

Despite all that, the Parisian company looked better as a whole than it had for some time. The children of the Paris Opera School of Dance were passionately immersed in their characters and dances. Snowflake’s corps de ballet was alert and observant, even dancing at times slightly ahead of the beat instead of in the slightly poised and correct manner the company may exhibit.

Mrs. Baulac and Mr. Louvet could have used some of this musicality in the main roles. They are both very young, both promoted just 10 days ago from the corps de ballet to soloist status (“subject” in the hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet) and are clearly major talents.

Ms. Baulac is blonde and soft-faced, with a glorious sweeping line and dynamic leap; M. Louvet, with black hair, is a noble, tall and elegant dancer with a beautiful refinement in his dancing. They tackled the difficulties of choreography with admirable finesse and delivered a radiant final pas de deux, but neither are as interesting to watch as they could be. Both move with gentle regularity; there is little phrasing or a sense of differentiated dynamics that would bring life and intensity to their dancing.

This lack of reactive musicality is a shame, given the technical level of the dance in this company. The snowflake scene suggests that this is a problem Benjamin Millepied, the Opera’s new dance director, is tackling. Its own lineup begins next season: A Different Nutcracker, Please.

Nutcracker. Paris Opera Ballet, Bastille. Until December 31.