NEW YORK – George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” ends with a big, collective farewell wave. Every single dancer onstage is waving — from the Sugarplum Fairy and her fellow inhabitants of the Land of Sweets down below, to Marie and her Prince up above, soaring in their wooden sleigh.
How appropriate, then, that on Sunday night at New York City Ballet, one Sugarplum Fairy was bidding her own, personal farewell. It was the final NYCB performance for Sterling Hyltin, one of the company’s most admired ballerinas. Retiring after 20 years, she's been dancing this role for 16 of them, and she was still at the top of her game — warm and expansive in demeanor, light and airy in movement. She was also quite clearly having a blast.
Hyltin's performance, loudly cheered at every opportunity (including a standing ovation before her climactic pas de deux with partner Andrew Veyette was even over), made for a special “Nutcracker” evening, especially for audience members who’d never seen a traditional ballet farewell. At curtain calls, she stood onstage as a procession of colleagues — current and former — came out one by one, bearing flowers and hugs, and golden glitter cascaded from above. (The hug-bearers also included some of her young ballet students and her 2-year-old daughter).
This “Nutcracker” has, of course, been a mainstay of holiday entertainment in New York for almost 70 years since it premiered in 1954, featuring the famous Balanchine choreography and iconic Tchaikovsky score. After being sidelined completely 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. Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater was packed with a mostly unmasked audience, with mandates dropped in October. And the smallest kids were back, both offstage and on. (Last year, vaccine restrictions limited audience members to those old enough to be vaccinated or to younger children with a negative PCR test.) The 2021 cast was aged 12 to 16 — also due to vaccine rules — considerably older than usual. This year, the young performers are aged 8 to 13, and the spiffy new costumes (including to-die-for party dresses) made last year to accommodate older kids have been altered for them.
Caroline O’Hagan, age 10, was a thoughtful Marie, who falls asleep after her parents’ Christmas Eve party and awakens in a changed world, helping her Nutcracker Prince slay the Mouse King with a strategic toss of her slipper. Titus Landegger, 11, was a gallant prince, giving a vividly mimed account of the battle when the couple arrives in the Land of Sweets.
Most of the key adult dancing comes in Act II, but the Snowflakes, who close out Act I under pelting confetti snow — how do they not slip? — were especially sharp and in perfect unison.
Children in the audience still gasp when the curtain arises on Act II’s Land of Sweets, with the youngest performers — the angels — gliding across the stage before the Sugarplum Fairy makes her entrance. Hyltin greeted the angels with perhaps an extra smile, since she teaches youngsters at the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet.
After her delicate solo, the Sugarplum Fairy cedes the stage — to Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Candy Canes, the Marzipan Shepherdesses, the vamping Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles, and the Flowers (with Indiana Woodward here as a glittering Dewdrop.) She returns for the piece de resistance — the pas de deux of the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier, with its dramatic soaring lifts and fish dives.
Then the real farewell began. At curtain calls, Hyltin was greeted by seven of her students from the cast, clad in pink leotards and tights and bearing flowers. She also left the stage momentarily to embrace Peter Martins, the former City Ballet chief whom she has credited with championing her as a young dancer (Martins retired in early 2018 under a cloud of accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. He denied wrongdoing and a subsequent two-month investigation did not corroborate those claims.)
Hyltin, 37, has said she wants to focus her time on her young daughter, as well as continue teaching.
But she had one last ballet trick in her. As the golden confetti fell, she delighted her fellow dancers onstage, some of them jumping up and down as she ripped off an impromptu set of quick traveling pique turns around the stage, punctuated with a big leap — and a big laugh.