In 1975 I was sick with a cold when Daryl Dodson, the general manager of American Ballet Theater, came to my room at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. and asked if I would make a Nutcracker for the company. I must have been feverish because eventually I said yes. I’d never choreographed, or even staged a ballet before, but ABT needed a commercial success and that meant a Nutcracker. Daryl said it was a personal request from the director and founder of ABT, Lucia Chase. I didn’t feel like no was an option.
My plan was to set what I remembered from the Vasily Vainonen version I knew as a child in Riga, but to add a psychological twist to the plot. Instead of a fantastical dream, I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story for Clara; her premonition that girlhood will come to an end and the flicker of fear she feels with that realization. I believed Tchaikovsky’s magical score could carry such a deeper, darker story.
Of course, I had no clue how to get this idea on to the stage. My memories of Nutcracker were those of a nervous boy waiting in the wings in my little soldier’s costume. The heat of the lights, the smell of powder, the waves of glorious music…it was happiness, not dark at all. Later, at about 12, I danced one of the divertissements in the second act, a little trio with two girls. Nerve wracking, but still thrilling. Then, at 18, I danced the Cavalier in a graduation year performance at the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. I tried my best, but after the show the director of the school pointedly came backstage and said I overacted, under danced and smiled much too much. I believe he was right. The lesson was; even a crowd pleaser like the Nutcracker needs a bit of depth.
In the 70s, ABT was already a dance company with extraordinary artistic depth. Young, enthusiastic dancers could easily be rambunctious children at the party and then dance the hell out of the divertissements. Older, veteran dancers could imbue the Stahlbaums, the King of Mice, and, of course, Drosselmyer, with weight and humor so that those characters became integral to the ballet. And every cast of Clara and the Prince plumbed their own experiences to make their roles three-dimensional and truthful. I was extraordinarily lucky and still remember the entire process with gratitude.
Many have told me that watching the film of ABT’s Nutcracker is a sort of holiday ritual for them and their families. That makes me incredibly happy. In this annus horribilis (to quote her Majesty the Queen), I can only hope that that ritual might still bring some joy.