The Nutcracker

Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

at the Rosemont Theatre,

November 27-December 8

Nuts & Bolts: A Jazzy

Nutcracker for the 90s

Joel Hall Dancers

at the O’Rourke Center of Truman College, December 6-15

By Joseph Houseal

In the last half century The Nutcracker–originally a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and later a ballet by Petipa and Ivanov to a glorious score by Tchaikovsky–has proved to be more dance project than classical ballet. And it’s a project many have taken on, perhaps because of the dream that frames it or the fantasy parade that ends it. But in any case, like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, The Nutcracker has been mercilessly trashed by regional companies everywhere (the Annapolis Ballet Theater has a drag queen for the Mouse King). It seems anybody trying to make a statement starts with the season of goodwill and forges out of it something “radical and new.”

One must know the original to have a handle on the variants. Clara is a young girl whose strange uncle arrives to enliven a Christmas party. He gives Clara a Nutcracker. Her brother breaks it. Clara falls asleep and has a dream. The Christmas tree grows to enormous proportions (always an entertaining scene in low-budget productions), and poor Clara is attacked by humongous mice. A human-size Nutcracker appears with an army and saves the day. When he takes his Nutcracker head off, he’s revealed to be a prince. In the second act the prince escorts Clara through a wonderland in which magical creatures and dancers from various cultures perform for her. The dream ends, and Clara awakes loving her little Nutcracker more than ever.

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago dances its Nutcracker straight. Unfortunately, the ambience of the Rosemont Theatre is more suited to car shows than classical ballet, and the dancers still look like they’re performing out of suitcases. The Joffrey is a good company and usually fine interpreters of such heavily visual pieces as their Ballet Russe reconstructions, but they look a little ragged these days: their precision is wanting, and the casting is uneven. Most puzzling is the unmusical choreography to this most musical of scores. As is often the case in classical ballet, the choreography’s provenance is suspect. This is a staging by George Verdak and Scott Barnard after a 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production, revived by Alexandra Fedorova from the original Petipa/Ivanov, with a couple new dances by Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino.

But there are pleasures in seeing a good straight production of The Nutcracker: classical art is threatened with total irrelevance if it’s not reinterpreted for a global society, and The Nutcracker happily merges the high and the populist. Some people see The Nutcracker as regularly as they buy a Christmas tree. But the real thrill for a dancegoer is to discover a performer who can bring to life the magic of a classical form for a new generation. Such dancers are rare, and they may not burn bright for long. The Joffrey has one, Calvin Kitten, who dances Clara’s brother, the Snow Prince, and the Tea variation with an airy ballon and enviable youthful vigor. Only in traditional forms, which have established a continuum of talent, does this kind of aesthetic surprise occur.

Of new versions, there are plenty. Rudolph Nureyev brought stellar dancing to his Nutcracker, made Clara a late teen and the Nutcracker/Prince the featured dancer, and ended with a deeply romantic pas de deux. Mikhail Baryshnikov traded on his celebrity with a bright, showy version in which all the toys under the tree were human; it was all about Baryshnikov. Mark Morris (who dancer Sybil Shearer says can only be understood as “a satirist”) relocated The Nutcracker to 60s suburbia. However, a black drag-queen maid and modern dancers grunting on toe shoes as snowflakes are not my idea of innovation. Morris’s self-conscious cuteness, which he mistakes for wit, palls quickly.

Then we have the African-American rewrites of The Nutcracker. “Revenge of the Nutcracker,” perhaps? Like most classical ballets, The Nutcracker is wildly incorrect politically. Ballet rarely escapes its imperialist origins, which remain even in the abstract choreographic hierarchy of neoclassical formalism. Most classical ballets end with some excuse to have representatives from various regions and cultures dancing at the feet of a ruling white couple, usually a prince and princess.

Donald Byrd, a fixture on the New York dance scene, has conceived A Harlem Nutcracker, to be produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here Clara is an old woman and the Nutcracker/Prince is her dead husband; the mice are specters of death. The production depicts black American values as they’re seldom seen in American pop art. The core of the story is love, not an adolescent’s twisted wish fulfillment. Clara’s dream journey is in part a trip down memory lane, showing the time she spent with her husband, including their participation in the civil rights movement. The music is an arrangement of Tchaikovsky by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, with additional arrangements by David Berger (current conductor of the Ellington Orchestra). In the rehearsal I saw, an Abe Lincoln doll replaced the Nutcracker. The ballet ends with everybody opening presents, as Clara, off to the side, dies. It’s a happy moment: she’s joined her prince.

However free Byrd is with The Nutcracker story, he’s truer to the narrative than Joel Hall in his brazen, deconstructionist Nuts & Bolts: A Jazzy Nutcracker for the 90s, my favorite Nutcracker. How much of this subversion is intentional and how much is simply the overflow of Hall’s creativity is hard to say.

Hall includes no narrative whatsoever in this evening-length work, though some of its many scenes echo divertissements from The Nutcracker and the final scene confronts us with a huge parade. Perhaps this is contempt for the story, but why not? It’s a contemptible story. The best of Hall’s scenes include clearly juxtaposed images: a classical ballerina dressed as a swan wearing a Walkman on one side of the stage, and four dancers in two-piece solid-color silk costumes doing Graham contractions on the other. Or a white ballerina floating across the stage in ceaseless bourrees while her black/funk counterpart in a sorry pink and purple tutu does torso isolations. These images work like Russian icons: they are framed, enigmatic symbols of contrary forces. Oddly, the effect is meditative. Hall is a bit of a sphinx, not one for explanations. But in any case he’s created a style of movement and a set of problematic dream images that are arresting and disturbing.

Hall’s version plays well with Strayhorn’s radical arrangements of the Nutcracker Suite, which like Hall’s choreography often seem to have almost nothing to do with the original. Some of the dancing is extraordinary in the passion of its execution and in its appealing effrontery: Hall’s dancers seem totally awake. A duet by RonWilson and Hall veteran William Gill was full of both finesse and absolute sexy outrage. Aimee Tye, who shows a growing knowledge of Hall’s style, is a true classical ballerina and a real asset to the company.

Shot through the entire work are Hall’s own trippy, hypnotic interludes of house music: “I got jazz in my soul.” Once this contemporary, subversive, highly entertaining evening was over, I kept hearing this refrain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Nutcracker photo by Herbert Migdoll/ Nuts & Bolts: A Jazzy Nutcracker for the 90s photo.