Like many dancers, I have performed in many (too many?) Nutcrackers. Intellectually, I can appreciate the ballet’s role as a family holiday tradition, the smiles it puts on children’s faces, and the path to financial solvency it provides many dance companies. I can trace much of my employment history, directly or indirectly, to the existence of Nutcracker. The ubiquity of it every winter is an opportunity to reflect on my good fortune.
However, it has sometimes been hard to keep such gratefulness in mind when, after a long day of Nutcracker rehearsal, all the stores seem to be playing Billy Bob’s Banjo Sugarplum or Krazy Kazoo Mirletons, causing me to walk right back out the door, dinner unbought, blood pressure elevated. I have had near panic attacks in the audience when watching the Nutcracker at my old school, reliving doing that role 20 years earlier, and the nerves I had then.
Enter Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker. It is the holiday answer for anyone who:
has been in too many traditional Nutcrackers
has seen too many traditional Nutcrackers
has thought “forget the kids, why don’t we put a smile on the adults’ faces”
loves Duke Ellington’s version of Tchaikovsky’s score
wants to start a new, adventurous, exciting holiday tradition
enjoys strong dancing, quality sets and costumes, and good food and drink
If any of the above apply to you, it’s time to make it an evening out at Land of the Sweets.
Conceived of and produced by Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann (who play several lead roles, and the MC Charles Drosselmingus, respectively), the show alternates burlesque dance numbers with front-of-the-curtain skits, riffing, singing, and general entertaining by the MC. (The choreography of the lightning-fast set and costume changes happening during these interludes must be its own fascinating ballet.) They keep the pace ever-moving, which can be a problem if the Triple Door’s congenial atmosphere tempts you with its extensive menu; there aren’t many chances to glance down at your plate to eat.
Behind the glitz of sequined pasties, this is a serious dance Nutcracker. Verlaine’s background includes training with illustrious teachers and at San Francisco Ballet. This shows in her own fabulous performances, and in the quality of the other dancers performing; their bios are peppered with Pacific Northwest Ballet School, Spectrum Dance Theater, Joffrey Ballet School, Youth America Grand Prix finalist, and so on. And the dancers have range, performing in heels, ballet slippers, tap shoes, and pointe shoes.
The opening dance set the tone for the whole show: a corps du burlesque of snowflakes executed clean, precise choreography with technical aplomb. At the same time, they were having cheeky fun grabbing their butts where pockets contained copious supplies of snow to toss in the air, sprinkle daintily with ostentatious ballerina-ness, and throw at each other. Verlaine appeared as the Snow Queen, resplendent in a gorgeous long tutu that soon started to disappear. Sometimes she removed a costume item slowly and with intense concentration; at other times she flung it off playfully. She toyed with the audience, simultaneously serious about the stripping task at hand, and laughing at the delight and/or absurdity of it.
The dancing continued to be seriously good, and the burlesque disrobing variously titillated, surprised, provoked gales of laughter, and celebrated the human form. There is a good sense of theatrical craft and pacing in the production; because so much of burlesque depends on the reveal, one engrossing number, done almost entirely behind a screen and playing with the dancer’s shadow and mischievous balls of light, was especially delightful for how it upended expectation. The Rat King, too, was appropriately ratty and hilariously gross as he itched his way to a surprise ending. The humor of his act was a good contrast for the darkly sensual Arabian Coffee that followed soon after. The evening closed with the full cast assembled in thongs and pasties, dancing with tenderness and adagio loveliness that somehow became a heartfelt kickline.
The costumes were a visual feast throughout. Sumptuously constructed, they made the dancers look good in them and out of them. One especially gorgeous section was the Arabian Coffee, with the men in astonishing peacock capes. The ingenuity with which they came apart was also delightful, especially in the Spanish dance, in which skirt became bull cape, and the man’s shirt came off with enthusiastic speed. Duke Ellington’s jazz score is also a treat, the only disappointment being that it was a recording. A live band would be much more in line with the quality of the rest of the show.
Land of the Sweets is not the typical family-friendly show. The early shows are 17+ and the late shows are 21+. Yet in some respects, it is better than a traditional Nutcracker at modeling values that are family-friendly. The dancers have a wider range of body types that you will see in a typical ballet Nutcracker, and they all proudly display themselves in (nearly) naked glory, celebrating what their bodies can do. Stripping and dancing were both equal opportunity: unlike in most of pop culture, it wasn’t just the women taking their clothes off, and unlike most of ballet, pointe work wasn’t restricted to women only (nor were the high heels). It was not surprising to read that Verlaine also has a background in Feminist Theory. In its own burlesque way, Land of the Sweets has an earnest wholesomeness to it. No worries though, it also has ribald hijinks, wink-wink nudge-nudge double entendres, and enough heat to keep you warm through a cold winter’s evening.
Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker runs through Saturday, December 27, at the Triple Door. More information and a tickets link here.