ALTER-NUT

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When George Balanchine was preparing to create his version of The Nutcracker for the young New York City Ballet in 1954, he insisted on a very elaborate tree for the first act party. The tree, he claimed, was the ballet – without it, you had nothing. It seems, though, that if you’re thinking about making an alternative version of the work, you should forget the tree. What you need are tear-away pants.

Mark Morris’ Hard Nut. Photo by Mat Hayward.

You might not think they would be that important, but many of the productions running in Seattle this year depend on quick-change costuming as a part of their theatrical hijinks – it some situations, it is indeed more essential than the tree.

Nutcracker fills multiple needs for companies around the community – it’s a recognizable part of the holiday landscape for many dance groups. For schools and small ensembles it may be the big production of the year, giving young performers important stage time. For other companies, it’s their stake in the world of the holiday show, which often is the major source of earned income for the season.  

But not everyone wants to present a big, conventional Nutcracker, even if they would like to have some kind of holiday performance. And since there have already been multiple changes made to Lev Ivanov’s work since its 1892 premiere, a number of choreographers have taken additional license with the ballet. For some of them, their pathway takes them pretty far away from what we might recognize as Nutcracker.

Mark Morris is a Seattle native, and although he’s brought his company here multiple times, they’d never performed his version of the classic in his hometown, until this month at the Paramount Theater. He made The Hard Nut in 1991 while he was in residence at the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, and the production looks like it was made with those traditional theatrical resources. The cartoon-inspired sets by Adrianne Lobel, based on images by Charles Burns, need a stage with a full fly loft to make the transition from 1970’s holiday party to a hallucinogenic trip around the world. Martin Pakledinaz’ wild costumes must have been another big investment, with a combination of disco party finery and fantastical riffs on ethnic styles (not to mention tutus for all in the Snow and Flower scenes).  The full effect is lavish, as is Morris’ over-the-top interpretation of the story. We are about as close to the 1970s now as the original audiences were to Ivanov’s idealized mid-19th family Christmas, and though Morris shows us his suburban party people rocking along in a Soul Train line through a highly ironic lens, it still evokes a kind of nostalgia – those people were our parents and grandparents and our holiday memories are often of those rec room gatherings.  

Mark Morris’ Hard Nut. Photo by Mat Hayward.

If Morris twists the original scenario, he also challenges the conventions of the standard classical ballet. Alongside his frequent gender-neutral casting, where men and women dance essentially the same material regardless of tradition, he’s created a beautifully tender duet for two men (Drosselmeier and his nephew), that is central to the transition from the real world of the holiday party to the metaphorical Land of the Sweets. The two switch leading and following often, so that what starts as a dance of mentor and apprentice becomes more egalitarian. When the work was first premiered, this was considered an unusual step – in the years since then, Morris’ choreography has continued to explore those possibilities.

Like many of the Grimm Brother’s actual stories, the original version of the Nutcracker is harsh and frightening – our heroine runs afoul of the Rat King, who casts a spell on her. She becomes ugly, and only when someone finds a magical nut can the spell be broken. The search for the nut is Morris’ justification for the various national and ethnic dances in the second act, and they are presented with tongue firmly in cheek. Russian dolls wave and smile as they dither across the stage, a fashionable French quartet pose languidly (you know they’re French because they carry a baguette), and Spain is represented by a florid bullfighter and a flamenco dancer. The quick change costume happens off-stage for the leader of the Arabian variation, who loses most of the layers of her voluminous tunic, but keeps all her bells chiming.

Interestingly, the choreography for the two big ensemble sections (The Dance of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers) is very traditional. While the costumes might seem radical (tutus and elaborate headdresses for both men and women), the floor patterns could have come straight from any one of Petipa’s ballets. The complex geometric designs and flanking maneuvers that he developed by moving pieces around on a chessboard before teaching them in rehearsal are all in glorious evidence here. This is one of those situations where the people in the “cheap seats” upstairs actually have a better view of the choreography than the audience on the main floor.  

The work ends “happily ever after,” as many 19th century ballets do, with one last tweak from Morris – our young couple has indeed gone away “together forever,” but the naughty brother and self-absorbed sister are sent to bed, and the television is snapped off.

Donald Byrd/The Group. The Harlem Nutcracker, 1997. Performers: Brian Harlan Brooks, Elizabeth Parkinson, Raymell Jamison, Wendy Sasser. Photo © Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. 

Donald Byrd made his Nutcracker in 1996 for his previous company (Donald Byrd/The Group) and like Morris, toured it throughout the country for several years. When that company folded, it looked like The Harlem Nutcracker would also be lost – it had been an elaborate project that required almost as many resources as Morris’ version. Since coming to Seattle to direct Spectrum Dance Theater in 2002, Byrd has been encouraged to think about restaging the work, but it’s only recently that he’s wanted to take on that challenge, and so this month Spectrum began a multi-year process to re-create the choreography and pull together the physical production. Beginning with workshop performances of excerpts, Byrd has mounted an extremely challenging set of dances for Spectrum, augmented by students from the school they run at the Madrona Dance Center. School principal Chris Montoya lobbied hard to bring back the work, in part to give his students that crucial stage experience.  

Byrd takes a wider view of the story – like Morris, he shifts it to a more contemporary time and an American setting. The central character of Clara is not a child on the verge of growing up, but instead a recently-widowed grandmother, who is hosting the family Christmas party but still misses her husband. He appears to her while the others aren’t looking, reliving memories of their time together.  One of those vignettes introduces the Nutcracker – a gift her gave her when he proposed many years ago, so that she feels his loss most deeply at the holidays. The party flows over and around her, and is full of love and friction, with characters we likely know from our own lives (the bossy daughter-in-law who wants to organize everything; the kids playing with their phones, uncomfortable in their dress-up clothes; the friends from down the block and a big group of carolers). Byrd uses the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn “Jazz Nutcracker” for his score, with additional music by Ellington alumni David Berger, which makes the contemporary dances in the first act feel less non-sequitur.  The second act, which is set in Clara’s memories of Club Sweets, where she used to dance with her husband, is firmly rooted in swing-era material – the Spectrum dancers tore up the floor in variations on the Lindy this past weekend at On the Boards. They are some of the strongest performers in the city, and Byrd’s choreography usually requires every ounce of that resilience – here he has combined that intensity with sheer joy, and the cast responds with zest.  

Placing the national dances in a nightclub setting helps to defuse some of the stereotypes that dog other, more conventional, productions. The belly dance that is often a part of the Arabian variation is replaced here with a whole collection of icons and stereotypes, reveling in the potential for kitsch.  The section opens with a reference to the famously virtuosic duet from the ballet Le Corsaire, danced by a captive and a slave, and then goes on to spot check multiple problem characters from ballet history, including the sultan from Scheherazade, who arrives on an actual ottoman, carried by a team of nearly naked body builders in gold lame briefs.  The sultan is swathed in robes, and topped with an enormous turban, but again, the quick change costume device amplifies the effect as he rips off his pants. The whole number is an homage to the Orientalist fascination that mid-century choreographers like Jack Cole had for a world they imagined but did not really know.

These are excerpts from a full production, and so some of the iconic Nutcracker elements, like the dance of the Snowflakes, are missing, and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt, but the rich detail of these samples are a delightful preview of what the whole work can become. 

Verlaine & McCann Present Land of the Sweets. Photo courtesy of artist.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between classical ballet and burlesque, but look a little closer and you’ll see a treasury of connections. Both traditions have a highly developed and complex vocabulary, with a multitude of theatrical conventions and an emphasis on physical virtuosity. They both orbit around ideas of female beauty, although they don’t share the same model.  And although they developed in different directions, they share a common ancestry in the early court ballet, where individual acts incorporated a wide variety of theatrical skills, from dancing to fencing, singing and dressage. The variety show, a staple of early theatrical performance, is connected both to vaudeville and to the episodic nature of 19th century ballet, with its parade of variations. So the liberties that burlesque artist Lily Verlaine takes in her Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker are a difference of degree more than of kind.

Verlaine and her creative partner Jasper McCann have been fine-tuning their burlesque version of the holiday classic for 14 years, and like Morris and Byrd, they have not skimped on the staging. They fill the stage at the Triple Door with a line of chorus girls and boys in little more than a g-string and a smile.  They keep the idea of the holiday party, but this is more like a polished celebrity Christmas special than a home-grown event. The score is an extension by Kate Olson and Michael Owcharuk of the Ellington/Strayhorn version, with additional songs added for McCann between dance numbers. He is our convivial host, and he works the crowd in the theater like the professional he is. In general, burlesque depends on the audience being in on the joke, and Land of the Sweets makes us complicit in the action. There are some local references involved, and a nod to the holiday competition – McCann makes his first entrance as Charles Drosselmingus wearing an eye patch like his opposite number in the Morris Hard Nut, but in this version the emphasis is on the salacious opportunities of the variations rather than vagaries of a family party. Almost every variation ends in an extended strip, with the tear-away pants joined by other tricky clothing – it’s a thorough examination of tease and reveal. The traditional ballet variation is usually a study in one or two skills, jumping or turning, an ethereal adagio or a bold travelling manege, and the numbers Verlaine has devised for Land of the Sweets have a similar focus. They may be performed with a salacious atmosphere, but they are also very skillfully crafted – they do not depend on the wink and nod.

Verlaine & McCann Present Land of the Sweets. Photo courtesy of artist.

Like her colleagues in other productions, Verlaine indulges in the potential for irony of the Nutcracker variations – her Sugar Plum Fairy is a reverse strip as she gets dressed after spending what looks like a fabulous night in bed with the Rat King, and her version of the Arabian dance includes her bathing in a huge coffee cup, after a ritualistic preparation with two attendants dressed as peacocks (a nod to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s former production by Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak). The Russian dance is a zoot-suited tap routine, the Spanish variation a flamenco duet, and the Marzipan shepherdess drifts across the stage on pointe while she undoes the bows holding her corset together. The program also includes some vintage theatrical effects, like Babette Le Fave’s shadow puppet juggling act and Tova de Luna’s aerial work.

After years of performing to recorded music, Verlaine and McCann have managed to include a nine-piece band on stage – it cuts down a bit on the available dancing space, but it’s wonderful to hear live music with this project.  

All of these variations on Nutcracker may turn some of the theatrical conventions on their head, but each one holds on to something that feels essential to them about the work, and the tradition it represents. They show it to us, all polished like a little jewel. Or a shiny pair of tear-away pants.

Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker continues through Dec. 24. Find more information here.