Early in Act II of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” the Sugar Plum Fairy summons the populace of the Realm of Sweets to join her in welcoming the Little Prince and his new friend Marie, who has saved him from the Mouse King. Oddly, one person who doesn’t join her for this gathering is her own Cavalier. He makes his appearance much later in the act, when she — now wearing a high tutu in a new color — takes the stage for the spectacular Sugar Plum pas de deux, with him at her side.
So who is this man? Her rented escort, her cultural attaché, her camp follower, her prime minister? Whoever he may be, this unexplained use of a supportive male functionary is one of the greatest yet most characteristic oddities of Balanchine ballet theater. (There are similar male consorts in “Concerto Barocco” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) She’s a ballerina; ballerinas need support; ask no further. And soon we see, at least, that he embodies chivalry: He’s there to serve her, and then to cast some sparkle of his own.
This December, an unusually diverse group of four City Ballet men have made their debuts as this Cavalier: Preston Chamblee, Daniel Applebaum, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Daniel Ulbricht. However anonymous, the role is a taxing one. No sooner has the Cavalier entered then he embarks with Sugar Plum upon an extensive, grand, thrilling adagio that can be seen as a nonstop obstacle course for him: a series of different high-exposure partnering exercises. Then, without leaving the stage, he has to change gear immediately into top-speed virtuosity, with full-throttle sequences of jumps and turns.
The four debutants are very unalike. Mr. Chamblee is a tall, hunky corps dancer; Mr. Ulbricht, a principal for 11 years, is a short, stalwart, experienced virtuoso who has tended to be pigeonholed into comic mascot and jester roles. Mr. Applebaum (willowy, elegant) and Mr. Villarini-Velez (a high-energy and valorous athlete) were promoted in October to soloist rank.
All four were remarkably well prepared; while making their ballerinas shine, they came through all the partnering hurdles without mishap. Mr. Ulbricht, whose usual persona — cutely assertive — is familiar to City Ballet audiences, seldom gets to do any partnering. After many seasons of dancing Puck in the Balanchine “Midsummer,” he showed a new side of himself — valiant, authoritative — when he was given the chance to play Oberon in 2015. His support in “The Nutcracker” helped Erica Pereira’s Sugar Plum become more decisively adult than ever before.
Mr. Chamblee, with his strong physique, beautifully effaced himself behind the tall, long-limbed, febrile Claire Kretzschmar. Mr. Applebaum partnered the brightly precise Lauren King with a remarkably light touch. Mr. Villarini-Velez, a sternly intense action man, served the marvelously jubilant Sara Adams as if nothing in the world could be of greater urgency.
In 2015, Peter Martins, then the company’s ballet master in chief, said of the Sugar Plum-Cavalier pas de deux: “There are 13 places that are very precarious, that can conceivably go very wrong to the visible eye of the layperson, not just us. So whenever I watch it, I’m like: 10 more to go, seven to go, four to go, O.K., only two left.”
The most notorious of these places is a twice-performed sequence in which the Cavalier stands aside while the Sugar Plum executes unsupported pirouettes into a powerful arabesque gesture. That gesture (she throws one hand high) will take her way off balance if he doesn’t catch her in time. It was remarkable to see how well all these four intervened, some coolly solving the task with just one steady hand.
Three of these casts brought a happy development: The restoration of a moment, late in the adagio, that has been smudged away by most other dancers this century. The Sugar Plum, after taking multiple pirouettes in her partner’s arms, suddenly arches back toward us, her arms opening as she bends. For years, most Sugar Plums have performed this backbend while being whooshed around in a rapid promenade by the Cavalier. (Mr. Chamblee, partnering Ms. Kretzschmar, still does this version.)
Balanchine, however, insisted on a momentary full stop before that whoosh, and most of these casts showed you why, with the ballerina flourishing her arms and hands in that backbend, catching an instant of glory in the music. It’s just a flash, but it happens twice in quick succession, and it can count, powerfully. Its return is a good deed to be applauded.
Roles like the Cavalier are rapid marathons. It’s tough if the men who learn them have to wait a year for a second chance to perform them, as often happened in the past. City Ballet has been run for over a year now by an interim artistic team: Craig Hall, Rebecca Krohn, Justin Peck, Jonathan Stafford. I admire their decision to give two performances each to the three younger men, so that they can gather immediate experience in this tricky role.
And while these casts had atypical, and welcome, diversity, there’s nothing new in having racially diverse casting of the Cavalier at City Ballet. In 1957, shortly after the Little Rock school integration crisis, Balanchine cast the African-American dancer Arthur Mitchell as a Cavalier, telling him, “This is my greeting to Governor Faubus.” (Orval Faubus, of Arkansas, had mobilized National Guard troops to prevent black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock.)
In general, the City Ballet “Nutcracker” is showing more faces of color — in the opening party, amid the Snowflakes, and in the Realm of Sweets. Good. But I remember the Royal Ballet in London importing a guest Sugar Plum couple — from Dance Theater of Harlem — around 1990. Shouldn’t City Ballet audiences in 2018 be used to seeing black Sugar Plum Fairies and Dewdrops?