Judge Sandra Dozier will refrain from any obvious jokes and just suggests that you check out this favorite television production that has arrived on DVD just in time for the Christmas holiday.
Mikhail Baryshnikov defies gravity. The man is so light on his feet, so strong and precise, he's just amazing to watch. In 1977, he was at the prime of his career, and the studio-filmed Nutcracker in which he starred as the Nutcracker prince showcases some of his finest dancing. Here, he is paired with 25-year-old Gelsey Kirkland as Clara. Together, they are part of one of the most beloved and well-known Nutcracker adaptations in the last thirty years.
Facts of the Case
Clara is a young girl with a large family and a doting godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, a respected clockmaker and toymaker. At their annual Christmas party, he brings Clara and her brother Fritz lovely gifts, but Clara's elegant Nutcracker prince steals everyone's attention. In a fit of jealousy, Fritz tries to pull the Nutcracker away and breaks the head off. Clara is devastated, even after Drosselmeyer repairs the Nutcracker with a handkerchief.
She goes to bed sad about the Nutcracker and enters a dream where her toy comes to life and fights off a Rat King and his minions, who are threatening her. Once he has saved her, he takes her to his kingdom and treats her to a show as his best dancers perform for her delight. Many clever and varied dances are put on, and at the end of the evening, the Nutcracker prince and Clara dance together. She does not want the dream to end, but she finally does come back to reality, safe with her beloved toy.
In this 1977 adaptation, some liberty was taken with this basic story line, with some of the acts trimmed out or replaced. Most notably, the Arabian dance, a favorite among Nutcracker fans, is completely missing from this production, and certain dances like that of the Sugar Plum Fairy were removed and replaced by an overall story line that kept Clara and the Nutcracker prince more involved in the story (rather than disappearing for almost the entire second half of the ballet).
There is some narration at the beginning to set up the story, and Drosselmeyer appears at the end of the dream in a dance trio with the Nutcracker and Clara that is a bittersweet letting go of innocence, a gentle reminder to Clara that her dream is not reality and that she will have to wake up and face the real world. This is one of the best additions in this production, and the choreography beautifully underlines Clara's longing to remain in the dream world and her devotion to and love for her godfather, who represents her family in the waking world.
Filmed on video and released to television, this is perhaps one of the best-known productions of The Nutcracker. The sets and costumes are lavish, and the video effects are generally used well (about the only exception is the inexplicably cheesy inserts of Herr Drosselmeyer's head superimposed over the grandfather clock to show the passage of time).
I'm not typically a fan of ballet, but I can watch Baryshnikov in practically anything. His control and ability to catapult himself as though he were lighter than the air he's moving through are a feast for the eyes. I was constantly shaking my head in wonder at his athleticism. He is well matched with costar Gelsey Kirkland, who has a similar build and also perfects a light-as-air movement that makes all of her dancing look effortless and graceful.
The choice to use an older Clara works well for this production. Normally, Clara is cast as a child of around nine or so, but I always thought she should have been in her late teens, just approaching the cusp of womanhood. Otherwise, why fantasize about meeting a dashing prince who whisks her away from danger and sadness and gives her a kingdom of enchanting delights? At nine or ten, I was too busy worrying about whether I'd get to ride horses on my birthday or not. Kirkland's slight build and large, expressive eyes help to remove extra years from her, making her just about the right "age" for a teenage Clara.
The plot and choreography for this version of The Nutcracker are very focused and have good direction—there is very little fluff here to bore the average child or ballet newcomer. There is a consistent thread with Clara and the Nutcracker woven throughout the story, keeping the viewer grounded with their experience and their affection for each other. The costumes and set design also help to propel the action forward, as they do not change so radically that the viewer feels thrust into a new situation with every act, but are unique enough to clearly delineate each special dance. All in all, this is a well-done and thoroughly enjoyable production.
Although the audio has been remastered into a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, it's difficult to tell whether the music was completely redone or just cleaned up and separated. I tend to think the latter, since the sound field isn't very active, and there is an audible hiss during the music that is more than likely age-related wear. Overall, though, the music has been heightened and given some depth of field, pleasantly filling the room with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all the good things about The Nutcracker, the first misstep comes with the choice of video as the recording medium. The image does not hold up well, especially toward the beginning and the end of the DVD. The image is grainy and overbright, and certain things (like the sweat on performers, who had to work under brighter-than-usual lights) show up a little too much. There was also a little bit of "video experimentation" going on in some of the effects. This was a fairly new medium in 1977, and there are several montages and overlays, some packed so tightly together that the wonder and ethereal quality of the dancing are muddled or lost entirely. Thankfully, this only happens a few times. The aforementioned ghostly head of Drosselmeyer appearing over the grandfather clock is downright silly, and it would have been a mercy to excise these short scenes.
Also disappointing is the complete lack of supplementary material on this DVD. There isn't even an extras menu, and the merest slip of an insert showing chapter stops (which correspond with dances) is included. It would have been nice to put together an insert about the Nutcracker story, with some explanation of the individual dances and some of the choices behind the choreography and plot changes at the very least. This would have been an excellent tool for parents who want to introduce their kids to a classic ballet, and for anyone who needs a refresher on The Nutcracker.
All in all, this is a good value for fans of this particular production of The Nutcracker or anyone who wants a tightly choreographed story that kids will be more likely to sit through. The quality is not terribly high in either image or audio (although it is vastly improved over the VHS version and possibly even the broadcast version, given the quality of television sets at the time), but the dancing is spectacular, and the two stars, Baryshnikov and Kirkland, are backed up by an excellent troupe of Canadian dancers, making this a well-rounded production.
The court finds The Nutcracker guilty of cheesy video effects but gives it a lenient sentence due to the otherwise excellent choreography.
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