Badisches Staatsballett: The Girl & the Nutcracker

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe
December 11, 2023

Bridget Breiner’s The Girl & The Nutcracker
for the Badisches Staatsballett
(pictured: Lucas Erni as Mr Frederick Stahlbaum and Lucia Solari as his wife, Margaret)
Photo Yan Revazov

Bridget Breiner’s track record suggested that, while her new The Girl & The Nutcracker (Das Mädchen & der Nussknacker) would be narratively strong, it would be also different. And it is, in a story that focuses more on family than on a young girl’s dream of love.

The all-new choreography is refreshingly classical. The ballet is a showcase for technique. Ensemble dances are full of glorious patterns. Pas de deux come loaded with dramatic lifts, pirouettes and big jumps. The Staatsballett dancers rose to it superbly.

Breiner shifts the action to early twentieth-century America, although if it wasn’t for the for the fact that Freddie (Julian Botnarenko), Clara Marie’s brother, is something of a baseball fan, it could almost be anywhere of the period. Breiner also adds some depth to the Stahlbaum family story, significantly expanding the role of her father in particular, who also plays a major part in Act II.

The opening scene looks very familiar but there are some very dark clouds fast approaching. Clara Marie’s father has been speculating on his fortune. It hasn’t gone well.

There’s not a lot of Christmas cheer as the family possessions are auctioned off. Even Clara Marie’s dolls and brother Freddie’s tin soldiers. All she has left is a wooden nutcracker, a gift from her godfather, Drosselmeier. But magic is in the air. In a dream, it comes to life, battles with the evil Mouse King, and takes Clara Marie on an adventure and into a place of happiness, cheer and good food. In short, the family Christmas that she still wishes for.

The family’s descent is well-pictured. Leonid Leontev’s horn-rimmed spectacled, gavel-wielding auctioneer is super efficient at selling off the family goods, but also comes with a coldness. The effect of losing almost all their belongings is clear.

Bridget Breiner’s The Girl & The Nutcracker for the Badisches Staatsballett
(pictured: Sara Zinna as Clara Marie and Ledian Soto as Drosselmeier)
Photo Yan Revazov

As the father, Timoteo Mock showed us a broken man, devastated at the turn of events and that he could no longer provide for his children as he used to, even though he still clearly loves them. As the mother, Balkiya Zhanburchinova is more remote. He takes to drink, she gets depressed. They separate.

Nami Ito gave us a quite self-confident and curious Clara. Always expressive, her facial expressions were a particular delight, none more so that the wonderful ‘you must be joking’ look she gave Drosselemeier (Joan Ivars Ribes) when he first gave her the nutcracker. But she had some adolescent coyness too, as when first introduced to Nathan (Olgert Collaku), the boy next door, who later becomes her dream Prince.

Following the sale, all Clara Marie has left is that nutcracker, which she holds in her arms as she falls asleep. As she dreams, it comes as no real surprise to find that the Mouse King bears an uncanny likeness to the auctioneer, even down to his glasses. With their skeleton heads and devoid of fur, his followers are decidedly scary. The battle that follows is notable for Breiner’s use of women on pointe as soldiers.

Clara Marie meets the mice in Bridget Breiner’s The Girl & the Nutcracker
Photo Yan Revazov

The transformation scene is a superb piece of theatre. The walls of designer Jürgen Franz Kirner’s house slide away leaving just the joists and beams hanging like a ruin as a giant snow-covered Christmas tree branch crashes in.

Nathan having magically turned into a handsome prince, he and Clara Marie climb a rope ladder to the clouds. It’s a place where snowflakes swirl, men and women alike dressed identically in icy long skirts and close fitting tops, under the watchful eye of the elegant Goddess of the Forest, Sophie Martin.

Breiner’s re-envisioning of Act II as the perfect family Christmas gathering works well narratively. It also rather cleverly means that all the characters from Act I can reappear as themselves. Expanded roles all round.

Sophie Martin as the Goddess of the Forest,
here with Ledian Soto as Drosselmeier
Photo Yan Revazov

Although all there, the Act II music is largely repurposed. That usually used for the national dances becomes a solo for the family cook (Spanish), a baseball-inspired duet for father and son (Chinese) and such like. Among the friends and toys from the past that Clara Marie meets is the small blue figurine of Pegasus. Only now it’s a dramatic fantasy creature brought to life by the Four Winds.

Breiner also adds in Judy Garland singing ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas,’ it’s slightly melancholy undertone fitting in perfectly.

Like all the best Nutcrackers, Breiner largely avoids the use of children, depicting Clara Marie and brother Freddie as teenagers, a move that allows for more dance and acting possibilities. They do pop up in Act II, however, where group from Karlsruhe’s Otto Hahn Gymnasium tumble and act playfully, one even producing a tidy series of fouettés. Quite why they were there I’m less sure. Clara Marie looked as bamboozled as I was.

It’s all linked together by the Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker Prince and Mr. Stahlbaum. Joan Ivars Ribes, Olgert Collaku and Timoteo Mock all prove great partners in Breiner’s often virtuosic pas de deux, filled with big lifts.

Father and Mother reunited in the
Badisches Staatsballett’s The Nutcracker & the Mouse King
(pictured: Lucas Erni and Lucia Solari)
Photo Yan Revazov

It being a Christmas dream, a happy ending is assured. Clara Marie, now in gorgeous ballgown, joins the Prince in the Waltz of the Flowers, her parents then reunited to the Adagio of the Grand Pas de deux.

It ends with Drosselmeier waking Clara Marie back in the empty house, where the family discover that happiness does not have to come with wealth, presents and fine food, but is more about people and their humanity.

Once again, Bridget Breiner shows she knows how to tell a story, and how to tell it through classical dance. It is different but The Girl & The Nutcracker very much gets to the true meaning of family. Sadly, for Karlsruhe balletgoers, Breiner is leaving at the end of the season to take over the directorship of the Ballett am Rhein. Dusseldorf’s gain is very much the Staatsballett’s loss.