Dancing away from darkness
None of the half-dozen danced versions of The Nutcracker I’ve attended in previous years and in various cities has been as creepy as E.T.A Hoffman’s original story: a sinister old godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, entrances the young heroine, Marie, with fantasy stories and then humiliates her when she believes them. Visuals are gross and include a mouse with seven heads. Not even Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version for American Ballet Theatre, which closely follows the Hoffman story line, communicates Hoffman’s extremes of good and evil.
Dance productions cannot spare the time for Hoffman’s complicated literary transformations (from lovely infant princess to grotesque melonhead baby), curses (a Mouse Queen that pledges to bite off the head of the royal baby), and bad and good magic (the Prince, transformed into the Nutcracker, accidentally kills the Mouse Queen while undoing the spell on the infant princess and later returns to his former princely self).
Most versions don’t allow Marie to enjoy the romantic dream that Hoffman writes into his magic conclusion: she leaves her family to return as queen with the prince-as-king and reign forever from Marzipan Castle in Sweetmeatburgh. I wondered how closely three of this month’s dancing Nutcracker productions in Santa Fe— by Moving People Dance, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and the National Dance Institute of New Mexico — would incorporate Hoffman’s original script.
Only positive magic emanated from the Moving People production, which ran Dec. 4 to 6 at the James A. Little Theater. Layla Amis, executive director of Moving People, and Curtis Uhlemann, artistic director, co-directed this 10th and last year of the company’s Nutcracker, known as Swingin’ Suites. Music included brief selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score and jazz by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Glenn Miller.
In Moving People’s version, the hero is Maria Montoya, whose eccentric Aunt Drosselda arrives with magical gifts, instructions in swing dance, and time-traveling powers. No frightening Herr Drosselmeyer and no prince are found here. After Maria and her aunt sample surprises in the Land of Swingin’ Sweets, they travel to the 1940s to face gangster rats. The only hint of darkness in this production is the fight with the rodents.
National Dance Institute’s Vladimir Stadnik directs this year’s “Nutcracker,” a 20-minute
Iportion of NDI’s Home for the Holidays program. Stadnik studied ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, which served the Kirov Ballet (renamed the Maryinsky Ballet after the Soviet Union disintegrated). As a Vaganova student, Stadnik danced in the Kirov Ballet’s Nutcracker production, with choreography by Vasily Vainonen that retains some of the original scenes from the first Nutcracker version written by Marius Petipa and choreographed by Lev Ivanov. Speaking by phone from NDI in Albuquerque, where he’s associate artistic director (he’s also coordinator of ballet for the School for Performing Arts at NDI in Santa Fe), Stadnik described a cheery menu of Nutcracker excerpts — no Nutcracker, no mice, and no fighting. Stadnik includes snippets of the ballet’s themes that he has choreographed for NDI’s youngsters and teens. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is the only classical ballet from old Russian versions. Home for the Holidays also contains carols, tap dancing, and other entertainment.
Good magic is also at the core of ASFB’s classical ballet version of The Nutcracker, as created by Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, the professional company’s executive director and artistic director, respectively. I contacted Malaty in Fayetteville, Arkansas, during his break from rehearsing with the local cast of children for that city’s first ASFB Nutcracker. Malaty spoke of a circus theme and an up-tempo Nutcracker pace as well as an emphasis on cinematic style, where more than one scene is always onstage to keep children’s attention. The taped music is the Tchaikovsky score, with some cuts and more cannons.
An avuncular Drosselmeyer accompanies the heroine, Clara, through the story, engaging her in the Hoffman tale as he opens and reads to her from a giant book. Instead of Clara visiting the Land of Sweets, she travels to a fair and sits on a carousel and watches the entertainments. In the land of healthy snacks, novel dances are substituted for some of the traditional confection dances. To conclude, Clara closes the giant book.
Gisela Genschow, director of the Santa Fe School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, prepares her students for the local production. The ASFB’s professional company dances the adult roles, with a few dancers hired just for these performances.
Genschow elaborated the philosophy of ASFB, saying there’s enough darkness in the world without having to scare the young audience. The product, Malaty added, has “no curses, no evil and good, just the dream of a little girl.” (Although the Nutcracker does kill the Rat King.) “If there’s a message, it’s about harmony and diversity, a community unified through the common language of dance.”
Santa Fe native Beth Kaczmarek, a guest dancer with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet