Nutcracker Nouveau

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

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.