A NU­CLEAR NUTCRACKER

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Even by the stan­dard of bal­let plots The Nutcracker comes up short. As given at its pre­miere, at St. Peters­burg’s Maryin­sky The­atre in 1892, its dra­matic tra­jec­tory, de­rived from a weird chil­dren’s story by E.T.A. Hoff­mann, added up to lit­tle more than this: Marie (of­ten iden­ti­fied as Clara in English­s­peak­ing lands) re­ceives a Nutcracker at her fam­ily’s Christ­mas party; it gets bro­ken as a re­sult of horse­play; af­ter the fam­ily goes to bed, it kills the Mouse King in a bat­tle; and then the Nutcracker (trans­formed into a prince), whisks Marie/Clara off to the mag­i­cal realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where they are en­ter­tained by a diver­tisse­ment that in­cludes dances in the Span­ish, Ara­bian, Chi­nese, and Rus­sian styles. One early critic got it about right when he com­plained, “In

The Nutcracker there is no sub­ject what­ever.” It has ac­cord­ingly be­come a Rorschach test among bal­lets, with chore­og­ra­phers im­pos­ing an as­ton­ish­ing va­ri­ety of in­ter­pre­ta­tions and adap­ta­tions on its skele­ton sce­nario. Usu­ally the orig­i­nal score, by Tchaikovsky, is em­ployed ei­ther se­lec­tively or in toto, and that’s all for the good; right from the out­set, it was sin­gled out as the best thing about the bal­let. But the specifics of the plot and char­ac­ters have be­come pretty much up for grabs. Ge­orge Balan­chine’s 1954 stag­ing for New York City Bal­let re­mains the clas­sic yard­stick, at least in our coun­try, but very dif­fer­ent vi­sions have ar­rived in re­cent decades via such chore­og­ra­phers as Matthew Bourne (a hunky stud spir­its Clara away from her sad ex­is­tence in an or­phan­age), Graeme Mur­phy (an aged bal­le­rina in a re­tire­ment home, Clara en­coun­ters mem­o­ries but no magic, and then she dies), and Mau­rice Bé­jart (a pre­sum­ably autobiographical version in which the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a boy and his mother moves into un­com­fort­able ter­ri­tory). Th­ese sce­nar­ios are not nec­es­sar­ily worse, and may be bet­ter, than what Tchaikovsky and chore­og­ra­phers Mar­ius Petipa and Lev Ivanov had to work with. It was hard to re­sist check­ing out a new take ti­tled

Nutcracker on “The Hill,” which was pre­sented in three per­for­mances on Dec. 4, 5, and 6, by Dance Arts Los Alamos (DALA). “The Hill” — for the ben­e­fit of new­com­ers — was (and re­mains to­day) the sweep­ingly un­spe­cific nick­name for the town in the moun­tains north­west of Santa Fe at which was de­vel­oped the atomic bomb dur­ing the high-stakes time of the Man­hat­tan Project. Let us quote from the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s press release: “The story will take place in Los Alamos in 1944, seven and a half months pre­ced­ing the Trin­ity Test. Open­ing with a Christ­mas party hosted by the Lab Di­rec­tor J. Robert Op­pen­heimer and Mil­i­tary Project Com­man­der Gen­eral Les­lie Groves, the bal­let will fol­low an at­tempt to steal sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion con­cern­ing the project. It will then be up to Op­pie, Gwen (Groves’ daugh­ter), and the Nutcracker Prince to find the Spy and se­cure the Clas­si­fied In­for­ma­tion be­fore it’s too late.”

I was wor­ried. It crossed my mind that in­stead of Balan­chine’s fa­mous Christ­mas tree, which evokes gasps when it es­ca­lates to a height of 40 feet, the fes­tiv­i­ties might in­stead cul­mi­nate in the shad­ows of a mush­room cloud. But no; the physi­cists have mostly set their work aside — a few can’t re­sist jot­ting equa­tions on a black­board — and the most overt ref­er­ence to ra­dioac­tive trans­for­ma­tion comes in the form of an ensem­ble of glow-in-the-dark rats.

Duane Smith Au­di­to­rium of Los Alamos High School, which seats a thou­sand, was packed to the gills at the fi­nal per­for­mance, and ev­ery­body had a grand time, in­clud­ing me. Di­rec­tor and chore­og­ra­pher Jonathan Guise (who was as­sisted in the chore­og­ra­phy by sev­eral col­leagues) de­vel­oped the pro­duc­tion with in­put from the Los Alamos His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, and it ac­cord­ingly opened with a short video that set the scene of Los Alamos in 1944. The bal­let proper be­gan with a swing ren­di­tion of Tchaikovsky’s over­ture. The recorded mu­sic for the af­ter­noon mixed Tchaikovsky’s orig­i­nal score with Nutcracker ar­range­ments (in­clud­ing those of Duke Elling­ton/ Billy Stray­horn) and quite a few pop­u­lar morsels more-or-less of the Man­hat­tan Project era. Dur­ing the Christ­mas party scene, for ex­am­ple, guests danced to such num­bers as “Sleigh Ride,” dur­ing which an Atomic City Tran­sit bus crossed the stage, and “Boo­gie Woo­gie Bugle Boy,” spot­light­ing three dancers dressed in red, white, and blue. The gath­er­ing un­rolled in a set that fan­ci­fully sug­gested the main hall of the Fuller Lodge, once part of the Los Alamos Ranch School (which was dis­placed by the Man­hat­tan Project) and to­day an arts cen­ter about a mile from where the per­for­mance took place. The im­pres­sive dé­cor filled the whole stage; it was de­signed and painted with trompe l’oeil three-di­men­sional per­spec­tive by Robi Mul­ford. (She also ap­peared on­stage in the role of Dorothy McKib­bin, the gate­keeper who con­trolled ac­cess to “The Hill” from her Santa Fe of­fice at 109 E. Palace Ave.) In the sec­ond act, this gave way to a candy-be­decked fairy­land, also color­ful and de­tailed, though not strictly drawn from history.

This was a com­mu­nity pro­duc­tion, and the dancers rep­re­sented var­i­ous age groups and lev­els of ex­per­tise to be found among the par­tic­i­pants in the classes and pro­grams of DALA. Nonethe­less, a pro­fes­sional bal­let dancer was im­ported to ap­pear in the im­por­tant sec­ond-act role of the Cav­a­lier: Bryan Jenk­ins, who has been as­so­ci­ated with Hous­ton Bal­let, Bal­letMet (in Colum­bus), and Bal­let Florida. One ap­pre­ci­ated the re­fined el­e­gance he pro­vided, most im­pres­sively in the so­los and pas de deux near the piece’s con­clu­sion. In the duets, he was joined by Melina Burn­side, an in­gra­ti­at­ing Sugar Plum Fairy and an ex­am­ple of the pol­ish to which DALA par­tic­i­pants might as­pire.

Duane Smith Au­di­to­rium of Los Alamos High School, which seats a thou­sand, was packed to the gills at the fi­nal per­for­mance, and ev­ery­body had a grand time, in­clud­ing me.

The on­go­ing con­cept of pur­su­ing the Spy, who Guise him­self por­trayed with vaudevil­lian good hu­mor, was a wor­thy stab at pro­vid­ing bal­last for

The Nutcracker’s air-headed plot. Many of the at­ten­dees at the Christ­mas party were iden­ti­fied in the pro­gram as his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who were con­nected to the Man­hat­tan Project, in­clud­ing En­rico Fermi, James Chad­wick, and Nor­ris Brad­bury. The ref­er­ences seemed some­times ob­scure on­stage, but many in the au­di­ence were nev­er­the­less tuned in to th­ese im­per­son­ations. At the show’s end a video clev­erly iden­ti­fied ev­ery­one.

I be­lieve I counted 133 dancers dur­ing the cur­tain calls. Let it suf­fice to say that ev­ery­one on­stage ex­uded com­mit­ment as well as tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity. The gen­tle­man seated next to me, who was two years old, was par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vated by a del­e­ga­tion of singers-dancers-drum­mers from the neigh­bor­ing San Ilde­fonso Pue­blo, who proved mag­netic in a buf­falo dance. I shared his gusto. The show pro­vided a re­volv­ing door of op­por­tu­ni­ties for dis­crete en­sem­bles of dancers to strut their stuff. It was hard to play fa­vorites, but af­ter­wards my mind kept re­turn­ing to the dance of the Baby Mice. Their long grey tails and quiv­er­ing paws had me con­vinced that th­ese must be ac­tual ro­dents, al­though I have it on firm author­ity that they were really six lit­tle girls in cos­tumes. In Nutcracker on “The Hill,” DALA took a thrice-fa­mil­iar clas­sic and made it spe­cific to its place in an en­ter­prise that oozed am­bi­tion, en­thu­si­asm, in­clu­sion, and in­tegrity. This was a pro­duc­tion of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, and for the peo­ple, which is just what a com­mu­nity-arts en­deavor should strive for.

Dr. Ben Neal, of the Los Alamos Chil­dren’s Clinic, as Mother Gin­ger in Nutcracker on “The Hill”

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