Remember that part in The Nutcracker when the prince does a solo? (Do you?) Well, it actually featured eight women, and over time choreographers changed the steps so that the women disappeared and it became known in modern-day productions as the prince’s variation. Thanks to rediscovered notations, however, artistic director Lincoln Jones of American Contemporary Ballet is restaging the original.
Deep dives into the history of dance are ACB’s specialty. Jones has a knack for digging up the obscure and the esoteric and presenting it in a relatable way. You can see audiences light up with a greater understanding of the steps, the music, and the backstories he tells.
ACB’s newest program, Tchaikovsky in Ballet, is running through Sunday at the BLOC downtown. Seventeen company dancers are performing selections of famous ballets as they were originally intended—and set to music by the famous composer. These are reconstructions of well-known works that were lost to time, including pieces from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, George Balanchine’s Mozartiana, and Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3.
We spoke with Lincoln Jones.
Tell us about the original Nutcracker piece with eight women.
Doug Fullington, who staged the dance for us, is actually the one who discovered it. He explains that Pavel Gerdt, the original cavalier in The Nutcracker, was a fantastic partner but likely did not dance a solo variation at the time because of his age. Doug discovered a notation for choreography for eight women that fit the cavalier music perfectly and costume sketches for eight Sugar Plum Fairy attendants. The way the dance ends puts the eight women in a position to frame the Sugar Plum’s variation, which comes right after. It is an up-tempo dance. The women dance as a group, sometimes all together, sometimes in symmetrical choreography. It is very warm and sweet.
When and where was it last performed this way?
Presumably it was last performed in 1892, in the premiere production at the Mariinsky Theatre. Doug thinks that by at least 1900, Nikolai Legat had taken over the role and probably would have danced the variation himself.
What kind of historical research did this take to reconstruct?
Doug is a specialist in Stepanov notation, which these ballets are written in. I contacted him when I wanted to do this, and he did all the reconstruction. A man named Nikolai Sergeev took the notations of these ballets out of Russia after the revolution, and they ended up at Harvard. Doug also augmented his research with photos, drawings, films, written descriptions, comparisons to modern versions, etc.
Can you explain a bit about the original intent of the other pieces on the program?
We did our best to stage all the dances as they were originally intended. All the older dances were reconstructed from Stepanov notation, and the Balanchine ballets were staged from videos taken when he was alive. Balanchine’s Nutcracker was staged by Zippora Karz, who danced the role not long after he died.
The idea of the program, beyond just showing the unadulterated work of some of ballet’s greatest artistic geniuses, was also to show the influence of Ivanov and Petipa on Balanchine. The first time I saw reconstructed Petipa, the first thing that struck me was how much more like Balanchine it looked than versions of Swan Lake, etc. that have filtered down to us through the years. That was very exciting to see.
Why does Tchaikovsky’s compositions still resonate with audiences today?
Ballet in the 19th century wasn’t taken as seriously as opera or symphonic music, and in general it did not garner the attention of great composers the way those other forms did. At the time, when a ballet needed music, it was often given to a theater’s “house composer,” who was a hired workman tasked with cranking out music as ordered. Tchaikovsky, as a first-rate composer, was one of the rare exceptions, which is why the music for his ballets stands above so much of the rest. Also, he was great at writing dance music, which not everyone is. Balanchine only thought there were a few composers who could do it. He mentioned Delibes, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky…maybe one more.
I would definitely describe Tchaikovsky’s music as timeless. It is classically crafted and has a singular voice. Some of our dancers have told me how The Nutcracker adagio gives them chills, even brings them to tears when they hear it, and this is a piece they have heard hundreds of times in their lives. I feel the same way. I find his music incredibly moving and great for dancing. I choreographed his Piano Trio in our third season, and I will certainly choreograph more of his music, and I’d like to stage more of the ballets that Petipa, Ivanov, and Balanchine choreographed to it. In fact, ACB will be premiering a new Nutcracker production this winter.
There’s actually a story about the music for The Nutcracker adagio, which would seem to belie its emotional power—that it was composed on a bet. Supposedly a friend bet Tchaikovsky that he couldn’t make a melody out of a scale. Tchaikovsky responded, “Can it go down?”