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'The Mouse Queen's Revenge,' or the other Nutcrackers.

Why change something that works? "I've seen forty-seven Nutcrackers and I'm sick of it," says Frank Mosier, who wrote a new scenario entitled Nutcracker, the Mouse Queen's Revenge for Central California Ballet.

Artistic directors and choreographers are looking for new ways to put their own stamp on the ballet, for both artistic and business reasons. After thousands of productions and over one hundred years of performances in the United States, Nutcracker is as familiar as fruitcake during the holiday season. It is often the first and only ballet performance young Americans see.

"This can't be the real Nutcracker--there aren't any surfers!" said a young audience member in New Jersey after seeing a traditional production. The Nutcracker neophyte had been brought up on Suburban Dance Force's production, in which Clara crosses the Lemonade Sea to the 1950s tune, "Wipeout." From Hartford Ballet's new American Nutcracker to Ballet Arts Minnesota's Rollerblading rats and A Clockwork Orange-inspired Droogs, unconventional Nutcrackers are flourishing.

The two new major Nutcracker productions that premiere this year have nontraditional elements: In Derek Deane's production for English National Ballet, only the prologue will be different. "The prologue is usually sort of Victoriana," says ENB spokesman Jim Fletcher. "Derek is updating this to 1997 fashionable west London. It's going to feature characters in miniskirts, beehives, and stilettos; cocktail glasses; characters with mobile phones; children playing with computer games, etc. The rest of the ballet is traditional." Kirk Peterson's The American Nutcracker (see Presstime News, page 48) is set in the redwood forests of Northern California and includes Lotta Crabtree instead of Clara, Edwin Booth instead of Fritz, and Mark Twain as a party guest.


Hartford Ballet notwithstanding, most companies localize the setting if they move it from the traditional Germany. Maine's Portland Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, New York City's Dances ... Patrelle, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, and Dutch National Ballet all set their Nutcrackers in their home cities, usually about one hundred years ago. Artistic directors have realized that a localized production connects the company to the community and lures audiences to see something different.

Tucson Regional Ballet and Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre's Nutcrackers go a step further to reflect the unique culture and history of their communities. TRB's Southwest Nutcracker features a Maria Martinez character as the lead, as well as a Rollerblading roadrunner, Indian Princesses, the Prickly Pear Fairy and her Caballero, Spanish Chilis, tumbling tumbleweeds, rattlesnakes, Mama Pinata, coyotes, and a Zorro look-alike called Tio Diego in place of Drosselmeyer. "We wanted to do a Nutcracker, and we had just joined Regional Dance America, an I thought, why don't we make it regional?" said TRB's artistic director Linda Walker.

BRBT's Bayou Nutcracker is set in antebellum Louisiana. "We wanted to make it uniquely ours, and to put our signature on it as the artistic directors and as the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre," says artistic director Sharon Mathews. In the BRBT version, Clara falls asleep in her home on the bayou, dreams of a party on a sumptuous plantation, and travels in a hot-air balloon to the land of sweets, set in Baton Rouge's Old State Capitol Building. The local flavor adds appeal, according to Helen Daigle. "When they see that it's set in a town from the bayou, they know it's going to touch home more than just a regular Nutcracker. I think it's a draw, especially because there is a lot of pull in this area to keep the Cajun culture alive and to keep the history here."

Just as it was for the child who missed the surfers, what once was considered nontraditional can become a tradition. Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, with sets by Maurice Sendak, has become a beloved tradition in the Northwest, though it is not really traditional; the work explores the psychological aspects of the story more than most productions and has sets in the artist's characteristic style. "As far as our audiences are concerned, says artistic director Kent Stowell, "it's a traditional Nutcracker, and I think they would be dismayed to see somebody else's." Zurich Ballet also employed a famous artist to design its unusual sets--Swiss architect Mario Botta. In Zurich's production, the Nutcracker role, which was created on Ethan Stiefel, is costumed in a black velvet bodysuit covered with 200 glass diamonds.

Choreographers mold the work in different ways to play to specific audiences. Ballethnic, situated near a housing project in Atlanta, created The Urban Nutcracker to make the story culturally relevant to the community. "There were a lot of children that we felt weren't being serviced by the [traditional] Nutcracker," says coartistic director Nena Gilreath. "We found that the kids couldn't understand the mime, and so we added a storyteller before the performance. The setting is Atlanta's Auburn Avenue in the 1940s. It really involves the students and makes them feel that they are important, instead of having a European setting that they can't relate to. And the costumes are more earth-toned and amber and chocolate, representing the richness of different skin tones rather than everybody being in the pink hues." Ballet Arts Minnesota's City Kids Nutcracker is a collaboration with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and includes kids who take free dance classes in local parks. Daniel Ezralow's modern choreography and video are mixed with classical ballet, and Mutant Ninja Rats and roller rats hurling cheese bombs make it a performance of and for children.

Choreographers also change the plot to make the ballet their own--from minor textural components to complete overhauls. Ballet of the Pfalztheater in Germany has an elderly Clara looking back at her childhood during World War II. In Florida-based Momentum Dance Company's version, Clara is an office worker who stays late after the company Christmas party, falls asleep at her desk, and dreams of Miami's South Beach. Some productions, such as that of Oregon Ballet Theatre, emphasize character connections between the party scene and Clara's dream. In BalletMet's version, the Mouse King wins the battle, and the second act takes place in the mouse hole, where the dancers try to distract the rodents so that they can escape.

As the younger set can have a shorter attention span, sometimes new characters are tossed in to liven things up. Ballet Long Island adds frogs in the "Waltz of the Flowers." Artistic director Debra Punzi explains, "When the frogs come out, you can hear the whole audience's attitude change. It definitely lightens it up." Ballet New England tosses in tipsy maids, National Ballet of Canada a dancing horse, and Colombia's Ballet Metropolitano de Medellin Coco the Clown. In the Royal Swedish Ballet version the Arabian dancers are sleepwalkers and the male rats wear red pointe shoes. Clara's cat, Je T'Aime, appears in BalletMet's production, and Drosselmeyer carries a duck.


Any dancer knows that, after a few seasons of giving scores of performances, even the Sugar Plum Fairy can lose her charm. After long runs, many a company has had unsanctioned hijinks on closing night. Now this is being institutionalized in Nutcrackers, in which the audience is told to expect irreverence. "Its a wonderful release for the dancers," says Colorado Ballet's Martin Fredmann, who has scheduled a Nutty Nutcracker for New Year's Eve. "Last year, in the party scene the dancers came as characters: Clara's mother was Marilyn Monroe, and guests at the party were Dracula and Elvis Presley," explains Fredmann. "In the fight scene, Minnie Mouse ran through chased by Pluto, and the snow scene was completely wild. We have a long run. Dancers get tired of Nutcracker and this is their present, my way of saying thank you for all this arduous work, and now--have fun."

Cincinnati Ballet is introducing Nutcracker Goes Nuts, in which, rumor has it, the musical director will throw a referee's yellow flag to call a foul when the Mouse King kills the Nutcracker, and they'll redo the "play." Artistic director Victoria Morgan explains, "It's really for the kind of people who think that they have been there, done that, seen the Nutcracker. We felt that, beside giving it a different edge, it would be nice to include people from the community. I think it will be kind of crazy. I like the idea that the ballet isn't taken too seriously. We're fun, too; we can joke around."


Aside from artistic rewards, mounting an unconventional Nutcracker can pay off financially. With hundreds of companies performing the work each year, the competition for audiences is stiff. In addition, for most ballet companies, Nutcracker brings in a sizable chunk of yearly ticket revenue. Because of increased publicity, nontraditional productions often provide much-needed ticket sales. "It's causing havoc with the other Nutcrackers; we've done three years of full sell-outs," says one artistic director, who asked not to be identified, of her Nutcracker

Modern dance companies, ice dance companies, and films have cashed in on the holiday show, dismantling its reputation as a bastion of traditionalism. Most notably, Mark Morris's The Hard Nut, which features a disco party, male snowflakes, and Clara in pink bunny pointe and which has been televised nationally, has changed the perception of Nutcracker as staid and prim. Last year, Norway's Nye Carte Blanche performed Beth Corning's The Nutcracker--Another Story, in which instead of Clara, the lead is a businessman who is cast into a nightmarish society and confronted with the seven deadly sins (a hamburger the size of a double bed represents gluttony). St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet performs its ice dancing version in Brooklyn this December, and Sony IMAX is planning a feature film in 3-D, with spoken parts and one dance scene.

Duke Ellington's score has been used in several productions, including David Bintley's for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Donald Byrd's Harlem Nutcracker for Donald Byrd/The Group, and Delma Iles's for Momentum Dance Company. The jazzy yet very recognizable music lends itself well to alternative productions and even helps sell tickets. "I think from an artistic standpoint, speaking as a modem dance choreographer," says Iles, "that I had other pieces that are more inventive and interesting choreographically, but the Duke Ellington Nutcracker is a piece that has been easier to get audiences and presenters interested in because so many people have such little familiarity with modem dance. If you say that you are doing a piece based upon a certain piece of poetry or based on the tragic deaths of people with AIDS, or any number of projects that might be used in modem dance, people don't get a picture in their minds of what they are going to get; whereas, if you say 'the Duke Ellington Nutcracker' even if they don't know anything about modern dance they ,know something about Duke Ellington and they know something about Nutcracker It enables them to have some sort of picture of what they might be getting. Its the easiest piece to market that we've ever had, certainly."

Grants for new Nutcrackers also help. "We actually got extra grant money for it being a gamble," explains Tucson Regional Ballet's Linda Walker, "because we didn't know how people would react. But as it turned out, it's financially very successful, people are loving it, the tickets are selling again for the fourth year already." Companies also receive grants for arts-in-education programs, for which some Nutcrackers are extremely well suited.

As educational tools, nontraditional works cannot paint a visual picture of history and introduce young people to the art of dance. "In The Urban Nutcracker, the soldier's costumes all look like Marcus Garvey, so we could educate the students about a national figure they should know," explains Ballethnic's Gilreath. Francis Patrelle set his Yorkville Nutcracker in turn-of-the-century New York and named the characters after people of that era, such as Mayor Strong. In-school programs introduce students to the history of the city through the production.

"I think sometimes, like in that Tylenol commercial, people have a real negative feeling about ballet in general," explains Laura Keys of Suburban Dance Force. "They think that all dance is ballet and that ballet is no fun. I think with a nontraditional Nutcracker, they can see that ballet can be fun and that there are a lot of different kinds of dancing." If Nutcracker can open doors so that more people enjoy the art of dance, artistic directors agree, both dance companies and the art form benefit.
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Author:Sims, Caitlin
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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