at Steppenwolf Theatre

November 4-8 and 11-15

Gordon Peirce Schmidt, resident choreographer for Ballet Chicago, seems drawn to the sleazy and sexually dangerous–though his dances are also often pointedly innocent and smiling. Perhaps in an effort to cover all these bases he’s chosen more than once to explore the demimondes of yesteryear, whose fears and dangers, poverty and risky sexuality are comfortably distant.

Three years ago he re-created the early-20th-century New Orleans underworld–its ten-cents-a-dance dives, its vaudeville stars and wannabes–in By Django, with music by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. This exceptionally good-natured, hectically humorous work was performed again during Ballet Chicago’s first week at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and it’s filled with “dames,” with fellows you have to watch your hat and coat around, with sexual triangles–one section’s called “Two Ladies . . . A Lucky Fellow?” In another, “Unexpected Cameo . . . The Worm Turns,” a haughty vamp in a slinky white gown and gigantic feather boa teases three men, reducing them to quivering masses of desire. A lot of care and energy have gone into this section, which comes just before the brief finale–into its careful “Egyptian” look, so popular in the teens, and into the self-conscious teasing and fainting and display. Audiences love it.

And audiences loved Schmidt’s premiere during the second week: In a Nutshell, a suite of nine short dances, looks and feels a lot like By Django, though the era, the music, and to some extent the dancing are different. Performed to Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite and “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” it sets the familiar story of The Nutcracker in an indeterminate modern time–though the piece has the look of the 40s because the dancers keep falling into a jiving jitterbug style. Here Clara (Petra Adelfang) is an overworked secretary kept late at the office on Christmas Eve. A janitor (Manard Stewart) with magical powers rescues her; called Dross in the program, he’s been given only Drosselmeyer’s beneficent qualities while a character called Boss (Robert Remington) takes on all the suggestions of inappropriate lechery. In the opening scene, an office party of dubious high spirits, he’s the office masher, the guy who thinks that because he’s the boss he can pinch and squeeze and dance with whomever he wants whenever he wants.

In a Nutshell is closest to the original in the way it sets Clara on a voyage of self-discovery. At first she seems uptight, nearly prudish, but she becomes almost a vamp, a transformation aided by numerous costume changes: from pleated red plaid skirt and green vest to slinky Chinese dress to harem-girl halter and pants to green ball gown (costumes and set by Jeff Bauer). The rather aimless divertissements of the original Nutcracker have a clear dramatic purpose in In a Nutshell, as Clara takes on the exotic costumes and styles of the people dancing for her. And the sections called “Chinoiserie” and “Arabesque Cookie” (clearly Schmidt had a lot of fun with the titles, as he did in By Django) are especially vibrant and clear. The three women of “Chinoiserie” (Karen Baynham, Lesley Bories, and Christine Dorian) emerge from their silky boxes with particular elegance and precision, presenting a flexed foot like a gift or jumping with one leg haughtily extended, their elaborate curly headdresses bobbing along. In “Arabesque Cookie” the sultan (Mark Ward) and his harem (Gretchen Klocke and Heidi Vierthaler) give their triangular relationship a gleeful campy feel: when Vierthaler points her foot in Klocke’s face, the other woman slaps it down; when Vierthaler points it in Ward’s face, he nibbles her ankle.

Ellington’s witty rethinking of the familiar Tchaikovsky music is the perfect choice for this tongue-in-cheek holiday confection. With the sound of the city lurking behind every note, it’s a suitable backdrop for Schmidt’s sometimes shady characters: the man who offers baubles to Clara from inside his coat; Clara and Dross at the end in their shades and movie-star poses. With its 19th-century melodies recast in terms of the 20th, Ellington’s music is also an interesting choice for Schmidt’s hybrid choreography. In By Django he often used pure classical lines–extended legs, upright torsos–but made the rhythms of the dancing follow the jazzy syncopations of the music; here he sets different styles on the body simultaneously, a decision he announces in the opening scene when a secretary, seated and talking on the phone, displays far from languid feet: they’re carefully pointed and driving into the floor. Later, when Dross supports Clara in a classical turn on point, his free hand is extended and vibrating in a kind of vaudeville flourish. Women on point melt into plie, then rise and melt again; men performing beats in the air display Astaire-like upper bodies, all curves and ease.

As a dramatic entity In a Nutshell is a very strange fish indeed. The acting is remarkably good, especially Adelfang’s: onstage almost continually, she makes us believe she’s an addled little girl as well as a sexually confident woman. Yet there’s something goofy about In a Nutshell. Perhaps it comes of setting a 100-year-old ballet in a “present” that was 50 years ago.

Consider Drosselmeyer’s characterization as a sexually abusive boss, a reinterpretation that highlights the problems of the task Schmidt set himself. We can’t see Boss as funny, not after the Clarence Thomas hearings–though people in the 1940s (and later) might have. And we can’t regard him with the benign tolerance we show the mildly pedophiliac Drosselmeyer in the original Nutcracker, who’s safely removed by time and custom. We can’t laugh at Boss and we can’t overlook his character, so at the end of In a Nutshell Schmidt punishes him–but that doesn’t seem right either, doesn’t fit the holiday mood. Watching In a Nutshell we’re amused, we’re charmed; but only if we consciously adopt a retro mood, ignoring the fact that we live in the 1990s. Watching this pastiche of styles and eras we have to ask where our own time comes in. Or is this the perspective of the 90s, this arch juggling of long-past looks and attitudes?

Still, I’ll take the weirdness and risks of Schmidt’s choreography over Daniel Duell’s dutiful formalism any day. Though artistic director Duell is an intelligent maker of dances, though his works are occasionally musical and even thrilling, too often what he does is predictable. In his premiere for this engagement, Improvisations in the Fifth Dimension, featuring four women and four men, Duell sets out to examine ballet’s constrained-looking fifth position, legs crossed and close together and arms encircling the head–but though it looks small it’s a position of power, a gathering of forces for leaps, extensions, and other forceful movements. We’re shown that fact in the classroomy first section of Improvisations, with its courtly, almost stationary movements in unison for the men, then the women, danced to recorded orchestral music by Mozart. Solo variations for all eight dancers follow, each to a different section of a Poulenc piano suite (played by Christine Weathers); the choreography is carefully appropriate to the music and the look and character of the soloist. The towering Jason Paul Frautschi resembles a tree tossed by the wind, and in his final pose–fifth position lying on the floor–he’s like a tree felled. Lisa Kipp is quick, whimsical, and airy, Kristie George birdlike and piquant. There’s a vitality to these solos that reappears in and enlivens the final ensemble section, again danced to Mozart, as if 20th-century individuality were inflecting the first section’s classical moves.

Duell’s choreography reminds me of the (erroneous) advice often given to beginning writers: Tell the reader what you’re going to say, say it, then remind the reader what you said. Duell needs to learn how to play. Schmidt, on the other hand, is willing to give whimsy free rein–you can see it especially in his mysterious, evocative The Sleep of Reason–but he could tolerate a little more structure. It should be interesting to see what the two of them come up with for the combined effort they have planned for the spring of 1994, a full-length Hansel and Gretel.