NEW YORK — George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” ends with a great, collective farewell wave. Every single dancer on stage waves – from the Sugar Plum Fairy and her fellow residents in Candy Land below, to Marie and her Prince above floating in their wooden sleigh.
How fitting, then, that a sugar fairy said her very personal farewell at the New York City Ballet on Sunday evening. It was the last NYCB appearance for Sterling Hyltin, one of the company’s most admired ballet flats. She retired after 20 years, danced this role for 16 of them and was still at the top of her game – warm and expansive in appearance, light and airy in movement. She was having quite a bit of fun too.
Hyltin’s performance, which was acclaimed on every occasion (including a standing ovation before her pas de deux climax with partner Andrew Veyette ended), made for a special “nutcracker” evening, especially for viewers who had never seen a traditional one had seen ballet farewell. At the curtain calls, she took to the stage as a procession of colleagues – current and former – emerged one by one, carrying flowers and hugs and golden glitter cascading from above. (The huggers also included some of her young ballet students and her 2-year-old daughter).
Of course, this “Nutcracker” has been a mainstay of holiday entertainment in New York for almost 70 years, since its premiere in 1954 with the famous Balanchine choreography and legendary Tchaikovsky score. After being completely paused in 2020 due to the pandemic, the production returned last year but had to cancel a number of performances due to COVID-19 cases in the cast.
This year feels very different. The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center was packed with a mostly unmasked audience, whose mandates were dropped in October. And the little ones were there again, both behind and on stage. (Last year vaccination restrictions limited audiences to those old enough to be vaccinated or younger children with a negative PCR test.) The 2021 cast was substantial in ages 12 to 16 — in part because of vaccination rules older than usual. This year, the young performers range in age from 8 to 13, and the snazzy new costumes (including dreamy party dresses) made for older children last year have been altered for them.
Caroline O’Hagan, 10, was a pensive Marie who falls asleep after her parents’ Christmas party and awakens to a changed world by helping her Nutcracker Prince kill the Mouse King with a strategic throw of her slipper. Titus Landegger, 11, was a gallant prince who gave a vividly mimic account of the battle upon the couple’s arrival in the land of sweets.
Most of the major adult dances take place in Act II, but the snowflakes that close Act I under a patter of confetti snow – how can they not slip? – were particularly sharp and in perfect harmony.
The children in the audience are still gasping for air as the curtain rises on Act Two of “The Land of Sweets” and the youngest performers – the Angels – glide across the stage before the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her appearance. Hyltin greeted the angels with perhaps an extra smile, as she teaches youth at the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet.
After her delicate solo, the sugar fairy leaves the stage – hot chocolate, coffee, tea, candy canes, the marzipan shepherdesses, the vampire mother Ginger and her polichinella and the flowers (with Indiana Woodward here as a glittering dewdrop). She returns for the piece of resistance – the pas de deux of the sugar fairy and her cavalier with its dramatic soaring and fish diving.
Then the actual farewell began. At the curtain call, Hyltin was greeted by seven of her students from the cast, dressed in pink leotards and tights and carrying flowers. She also left the stage briefly to hug Peter Martins, the former City Ballet boss, whom she has credited with defending her as a young dancer (Martins walked out in early 2018 amid a cloud of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse retired. He denied wrongdoing and consequential damages. The two-month investigation did not confirm those claims.)
Hyltin, 37, has said she wants to focus her time with her baby daughter and continue teaching.
But she still had one last ballet trick in her. As the golden confetti fell, she wowed her fellow dancers onstage, some of whom jumped up and down as she pulled off an impromptu series of fast-traveling pique spins onstage, punctuated by a big leap — and a big laugh.