Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Buttcracker

And so it's now four on a Sunday morning, and here I am in Baltimore, holed up as usual trying to get lots of work done (and procrastinating from doing lots more). Stumbling upon late night Christmas television only to find the one thing I don't expect to find 28 hours after the end of Christmas: The Nutcracker. Not only The Nutcracker, but a stunning new production of it from the San Francisco Ballet.


(A couple wonderful snatches from the SF production. Especially moving is the very finale in which Clara awakens from her dreams. A fantastic and not often done touch.)

Now let's be honest here: I don't much care for ballet, and occasionally the aversion is much stronger than that. I'm pretty unmoved by any artist who goes for the empty technical display - that's neither art nor entertainment, that's bragging. Or maybe this has something to do with my aversion to a ballet-dancer's distant cousin - the mime. A beloved high-school drama teacher once admonished us that whenever we see a mime performing on the street we have a moral obbligation to beat him up - advice I've always tried to take to heart. Even so, if the ballet music is lacking I generally sit through ballets with narcoleptic disinterest. All I see is a bunch of ectomorphs who could probably jump higher if they ate something. But that being said, I do quite love it when the music is as great as I'm told the dancing always is, and if the dancing serves a real story I'm all eyes. If it's Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, or (sometimes) Prokofiev, I'm far more likely to enjoy it. And of course, when it comes to The Nutcracker you get chances to indulge that particular fix ad nauseum every December.

There are always certain traditions that go along with every holiday. Some make more sense than others. Personally, I don't think I'll ever understand Messiah's Christmastime popularity. Awesome as the work is, a piece about Death and Resurrection during the Christmas holiday makes me wonder if some people really do want every day of the year to be Good Friday (...sorry Catholics, I promise that's the most direct reference I'll make to this...for now:).


(Brain Donors....everyone should see this movie)

But then there's The Nutcracker. Anybody reading this has probably sat through at least one awful performance of The Buttcracker (as that same beloved high school drama teacher so eloquently referred to it) and knows just how depressingly awful an experience it can be. As a kid, everybody had a sister or a cousin a female friend whom your parents schlepped you to see because she was dancing the all-important role of Clara's cousin #13. Your parents were obviously thinking they were accruing brownie points with other parents and exposing their children to high culture in the offing. Three hours later the child version of you probably emerged swearing with the kind of earnestness only a nine-year-old can muster that so long as you live nobody could ever drag you to the ballet again. My sympathies.

But there is another side to The Nutcracker as well. For every terrible production which thousands of kids are made to sit through in a baptismal ritual that can turn millions off of culture for a lifetime, there are those occasional productions of The Nutcracker that can change your life forever. And as many times as I must have gone to see The Nutcracker as a kid (by now I honestly can't remember if I dragged my parents or if they dragged me) I would have given anything to have been able to see one of those life-sustaining experiences as a child when suddeenly the longings of your nine-year-old self are laid plain and prostrate before you on the stage. Igor Stravinsky never forgot his experience of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty when he was nine at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, and for the rest of his life maintained that it was the defining artistic experience of his childhood - and perhaps it was what led him to choose the Ballet as his preferred form of musical experession. And thus no amount of whitewashing by the Boulez-Darmstadt crew can take away the fact that Stravinsky derived his greatest inspiration from soppy old Tchaikovsky. No amount of creeping homophobia against Piotr Illyich can change the fact that he served as the early and most important muse to the most vigorously heterosexual among great composers of the 20th century (lest that title be disputed, please remember that this is the man who lived with his wife and Coco Chanel AT THE SAME TIME). Whatever compositional weaknesses he has, Tchaikovsky is still a great composer who speaks with a universal voice, and no amount of condescension on the part of people who should know better will change that.


(Pas de Deux. Tchaikovsky actually wrote this scene because of a bet he made that he couldn't write a superb piece of music based on a scale. Needless to say, he won. But I've always rather felt that this sounds a bit like it should be an Elvis song.)

Lest the point of this entry get away from me, it would appear that the San Francisco Ballet version of The Nutcracker is one of those once-in-a-lifetime versions of The Nutcracker, and I feel jealous of any kid with an over-active imagination who can see it at an age when such experiences mean so much. The Nutcracker is a show built on over-active imagination, the dreams of children who don't yet have to understand what the world is. Whatever great qualities Tchaikovsky had, and he has thousands, there is little getting around the fact that Piotr Ilyich never quite matured emotionally. I love his symphonies dearly, but those of you who know them can't tell me that the thought "Get over yourself" hasn't occasionally popped into your head at least occasionally. They're masterpieces of naval-gazing, like the drunk friend who doesn't realize that s/he'd be less depressed if he just went to 7-11 for a cup of coffee.


(Last movement of the Pathetique. OH THE HUMANITY! OKOK, yes it's still a superb piece of music. But don't listen to it every day, you'll start feeling like this.)

But then there are the ballets, which are so far removed from the the bombast of the symphonies that it's as though they're written by Dr. Jekyllyich and Mr. Hydekovsky. Tchaik paid for his ability to retain a child's view of the world with a lifetime of torment, but that doesn't change the very real universality of what he achieved in them. Yes the high camp of Adolphe Adam is still there in spades, but underlying it is the stark and very real terrors of his darker moments that make the elegance of the his more picturesque moments so hard-won and deserved. Behind every Tchaikovskian reverie lays a phantasmagorical nightmare. And nowhere are the nightmares more articulate than in the ballets.


(Francesca Da Rimini. One of the greatest of all Tchaikovskian nightmares and his take on Dante's Paolo and Francesca story. Something often forgotten is that Tchaikovsky was one of the most uncommonly literate of all composers. His music includes sonic representations of stories by Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Byron, ETA Hoffman, Gogol, Schiller....and I'm sure quite a few others that I'm either forgetting or have never heard of. Compare this to Liszt's Dante Symphony: YECH!)

It's still fairly common to brush Tchaikovsky's achivements off, there were certainly years of my life in which I did. But I think I know what provoked the change in me. It happened when I started reading those loose baggy monsters by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (one day maybe I'll finish one...ADD poster child that I am). It made me realize that Tchaikovsky is yet another of those shadowy cultural figures with an artistic personality split directly down the middle: as much Ivan Karamazov as Anna Karenina - eagerly awaiting his Count Vronsky but praying that he doesn't get a Grushenka on his hands. Full of Pierre's longing to break free of privilege's confines but also filled with Sonia's serene acceptance of her tragic lot. One side of his personality - the Tolstoy side - the superbly articulate and elegant master of expression. Passions lurking beneath an immaculately rendered surface, but his elegance never divorced from expression and the expression all the more powerful for having been rendered so consumately. The other side - the Dostoevsky side - the master of animal dramatization. An underground man seeking out the light of day - longing for the ability to keep unbridaled passion controlled, but wiser for his intimate knowledge of suffering's contours.


(Walt Disney well understood the elemental power of Tchaikovsky's music when he wisely chose to set Sleeping Beauty to his animation.)

It's for these reasons that Sleeping Beauty is probably the highpoint of Tchaikovsky's career. It's the one work in which he arrives at as true a synthesis between darkness and light as he ever did. The nightmares are just all-consuming enough for you to wonder if the work will be overwhelmed by its shadows. But it never is, and the consumate elegance of his lighter side is so much more meaningful because it is snatched from defeat's jaws.


(Somebody had to have had the idea to do the Russian Dance by having the Cossaks leap out of Faberge eggs. Whoever that was should get their salary doubled.)

The Nutcracker is not like that - there's just one measly battle and it takes place because the Nutcracker refuses to call the Orkin Man. As far as Tchaikovskian nightmares go, giant rats are not very impressive. But it sets the stage magnificently for what follows. The Nutcracker is supposedly about the fantasies of a little girl, but could just as well represent the dreams of all children - female or male, burgeoningly gay or straight. The rats are standins for enemies and obstacles in life that are all-too-easily conquered, and all that happens later representing the all-too-false promises of greater and friendlier wonders to follow by the Drosselmeyers of our youths. All this rendered by a composer who knew all too well that life never works out quite as Uncle Drosselmeyer promised it would. It is a work full of mourning and regret by a composer who wished, as we all do, that life would unfold the way we always hoped it would.

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