Nutcracker Nouveau

Posted on October 15, 2008 by

Your students’ summer recital routines are a distant memory and it’s time to confront that sugary sweet fairy-tale ballet that dominates the stage every holiday season. That’s right, it’s Nutcracker season!

If you’re not sure you can stand another three months humming Tchaikovsky’s famous score, then put a twist on the tradition and create your own holiday show. DT talked to artistic directors at both professional companies and dance studios to see how they breathe new life into the holiday classic.

Solution #1: Take inspiration from your community to create a Nutcracker alternative.

For years, dance companies around the world have put a spin on the holiday classic by using their immediate environs as a backdrop. One of the most well-known adaptations is Donald Byrd’s The Harlem Nutcracker. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1960s jazz arrangement set the tone for this politically charged narrative about the Civil Rights movement.

Whether your Nutcracker’s theme is political or comedic, your school can put on a production that is unique to your community. Philadelphia-based ContempraDance Theatre’s Philly-Nutt-Crak-Up uses the city’s people, places and foods to create a campy holiday spoof. Based on an original rap by company dancer and assistant director Michelle Jones Wurtz, the show incorporates comedy, jazz, hip hop, modern and ballet. “It’s a conglomeration of talents,” Artistic Director Gail Vartanian says of her production. “I like mixing the genres of dance.”

With a cast of outrageous characters, such as “The Rappin’ SugarPlum Fairy,” the hip-hoppin’ “Captain Philadelphia” and a parade of other recognizable “Philadelphians,” the production has continued to evolve over the past three years. The focal point of the show is Wurtz’s rap, supplemented by music ranging from Tchaikovsky to Fatboy Slim. ContempraDance company members dance most of the show, but Vartanian also casts young students from her studio.

To get your own production going, look for inspiration around you and choose complementary dance forms and music. Utilizing performers with acting, comedic, musical or writing skills can add pizzazz to your production. A creative, well-executed show may even draw unexpected audience members. “The traditional Nutcracker usually attracts more mothers and daughters,” says Vartanian. “But a lot of boys and adult men like to come see our show.”

Solution #2: Use another fairy-tale or story with holiday/winter themes.

There are many other non-Christmas stories that are just as touching and entertaining as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker. Leaf through a stack of children’s books to jog your memory of some of your favorite childhood tales.
“Find a book that means something to you,” says Brenda Way, artistic director of San Francisco’s ODC/Dance. “All kids love storytelling.” The San Francisco–based contemporary company created a production of The Velveteen Rabbit, based on an idea that was born when co-artistic director K.T. Nelson read the story to her son and began thinking about how it could be turned into movement. The story’s themes of loyalty and giving led Nelson to think it would make a lovable production for young people.

The company performs The Velveteen Rabbit as part of its dance education outreach, and aims to get children involved in the production. Included in the program is a booklet that shows children how to create their own choreography, as well as fun character mask cutouts. “This type of show generates creativity and imagination,” says Way. “It’s very focused on heart, and it’s simple and childlike.”

Frances Smith Cohen of modern dance troupe Center Dance Ensemble also created a holiday production based on a beloved story. Her Phoenix, Arizona–based company has been performing a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen for more than a decade. Cohen advises teachers to find a story that you “make up as you go along.” Besides being danceable, it needs to be flexible so a production can be edited. It took Cohen almost 16 years to fully develop Snow Queen as a full-fledged performance.

You can utilize imaginative, comfortable modern movement, accompanied by voice-over narrative, to tell a simple, child-friendly story. Keep in mind that gestures and facial expressions are essential when performing a tale that the audience may be unfamiliar with. This will also provide an  introduction for your students to the art of storytelling in dance.

Music choice is also central when drawing a new audience to a different type of holiday show. Cohen believes that people enjoy The Nutcracker because of the music. When creating Snow Queen, she listened to a great deal of music before deciding on a rare Sergei Prokofiev score. Her other secrets to success? “Give them the glitter,” she says. “Give them a virtual delight by spending the bulk of the production money on lights and costumes.”

Solution #3: Create your own holiday “variety” show.

Would you rather avoid story ballets altogether? If so, a variety show may be more your style. It allows you to showcase your students’ talents and versatility in a fun, free-form fashion. And, rather than performing the same ballets over and over, variety shows can be different every year. In this case, the challenge is to keep the production from becoming another studio recital by limiting the number of pieces. Focusing on a simple but creative holiday theme may help.

San Francisco–based Smuin Ballet has been performing its “classic/cool” production of The Christmas Ballet for more than 13 years. While the dance numbers and choreography may change slightly from year to year, the ballet’s concept has stayed the same. The Christmas Ballet’s elegant “classic” act features classical music and ballet technique, while the “cool” act is structured more like a Broadway show, complete with tap and jazz numbers, hula dancing and quirky costumes. “The Nutcracker has the same music and choreography every year,” says Artistic Director Celia Fushille. “This production has its staples, but we also create pieces based on our talent for the year, while giving choreographers opportunities to create new works.”

With music ranging from Mozart to Eartha Kitt, a show like this is perfect for a studio that offers many different types of dance. It’s also a good learning tool to help students develop music appreciation and movement versatility.

“Our type of production can definitely be tailored to students,” says Fushille. “Choosing classical music educates them about technique. Then, bringing in music they might be more familiar with shows them that they can dance to anything.” DT

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