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Many Ways to Crack a Nut

The Nutcracker
A Cracked Nut: The Chinese man encounters Drosselmeier in Mark Morris' offbeat adaptation of "The Nutcracker," which will be performed at UC-Berkeley.

Variations of 'The Nutcracker' breathe new life into the 19th-century fairy tale

By Christa Palmer

Given recurrent complaints about the banality and staleness of the Nutcracker scenario, it should come as no surprise that dance companies over the years have searched for new and inventive ways to keep Tchaikovsky's Christmas classic fresh for audiences. There have been Freudian Nutcrackers, acrobatic Nutcrackers, Nutcrackers set in countries other than Germany, Nutcrackers without mice or a Sugarplum Fairy, even a few Nutcrackers which have nothing to do with Christmas at all.

And despite hearing the idyllic melodies of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet droning throughout every shopping mall in America during the holiday season, audiences never seem to tire of it, and the ballet's popularity shows no signs of diminishing, perhaps because no matter how lavish or simple a production may be, the story possesses the intrinsic power to make children happy and even the most sophisticated adults misty-eyed.

Among the many Nutcracker variations performed this season in the Bay Area, some faithfully follow E.T.A. Hoffmann's 100-year-old fairy tale, while others attempt to give the scenario a novel twist. And while some audiences may balk at those dance companies who dare to tinker with the original Hoffmann story, it is instructive to note that the beloved, supposedly "traditional" Tchaikovsky ballet is itself an adaptation of the Hoffmann original.

Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice, used as the foundation for Tchaikovsky's ballet, is a tale within a tale, with digressions and multiple transformations that make it much too long and unwieldy to form the basis of a ballet scenario for some choreographers. Also, Hoffmann's lurid passages are pungent, descriptively evil and gory at times in a manner similar to the sinister, often grotesque Brothers Grimm fairy tales, a far cry from the charming, even saccharinely sweet fairy tale ballet we know today.

The ballet modern audiences are familiar with is the adaptation of Hoffmann's tale by Alexandre Dumas (of Three Musketeers fame) called The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. Dumas' softened version formed the basis for the first Nutcracker, produced in 1892 in St. Petersburg by the dream team of choreographer Marius Petipa and Imperial Theaters director Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolosky, with none other than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composing the score.

Sticking closely to the original spirit of the Dumas/Tchaikovsky ballet with original choreography by Lew Christensen, San Francisco Ballet's dancers use The Nutcracker production as an opportunity to work on classical technique, hoping to make the traditional ballet a refreshing experience for annual Nutcracker-goers and even themselves.

"I try to think of it as this year 'I am going to get this step down,' or, 'this year maybe I'll concentrate on my arms, neck or articulation of my feet,' " says dancer Tina LeBlanc. "Anything to help alleviate the repetitiveness of Tchaikovsky's music playing over and over during rehearsals and performances. You can't get away from it, and you go into any department store and they are playing it nonstop. And as if we don't get enough of the music, a lot of us during Nutcracker time go off and do other Nutcrackers because it is a good way to make some extra money."

If nothing else, this year's Nutcracker promises to be like no other due to the War Memorial seismic renovations. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson and event designer Stanlee Gatti will transform the lobby and stage of the Palace of Fine Arts for this year's re-invented Nutcracker Family Holiday Festival. There will be no first act, but as guests enter the lobby they will be greeted by costumed characters at the holiday party scene, complete with refreshments and a giant Christmas tree. The tale will begin with Clara, the Prince and Herr Drosselmeyer signaling for guests to enter the theater and be seated. There the second act begins.

For many families The Nutcracker is part of the holiday chores. They decorate the tree, hang the stockings and go to The Nutcracker. For the San Francisco Ballet's fans, it wouldn't be Christmas without it. "Although the San Francisco Ballet's traditional version of The Nutcracker uses the same spectacular sets, costumes and choreography year after year, people will never stop seeing The Nutcracker," continues LeBlanc. "No matter how boring people may think the story becomes, it is still a live performance, produced with a lot of work and effort, and how can a live performance ever go stale?"

Unlike Dumas' softened version of the story used by SF Ballet, Oakland Ballet's staging of The Nutcracker has opted to return to the original story by Hoffmann, as choreographed by artistic director Ronn Guidi after the traditional Ivanov ballet. Oakland Ballet has been performing its acclaimed Nutcracker annually since 1973, and in order to keep audiences enthralled year after year, the company strives to retell the story as if it's the very first time.

"Every year, hundreds of families make the Oakland Ballet's Nutcracker an annual event, so the company goes into the ballet each year with the perspective that audiences aren't just going to the ballet, but rather The Nutcracker," says Ron Thiele, Oakland's co-artistic director for nearly three decades. "We instill in our dancers the opportunity to expand their own dance abilities to give the ballet new meaning even within the company, and we freshen up the costumes and sets with new colors and trim to make each year a little different and novel for our audiences."

Mark Morris' The Hard Nut uses Hoffmann's original tale-within-a-tale structure as its foundation as well, but departs from Oakland's version when it combines popular, modern and classical dance choreography in a way that invites audiences to experience Tchaikovsky's music in a holiday setting like never before. Instead of petticoats and patent leather, Morris' dancers wear polyester and platforms.

The idea for The Hard Nut came from the great comic strip artist Charles Burns, whose world is not the charming world of the 19th-century Nutcrackers but rather the decidedly different era of the '60s and '70s, where it wouldn't be Christmas without Barbie dolls, plastic army men and spiked egg nog. And like the comic-book source material, everything on stage looks flat, bold and colorful. "It's a smart and beautiful show," says general director Barry Alterman, who is excited about playing the role of Marie's father and doubles as the King in her dream. "It sticks to the original, scary story-within-a-story by Hoffmann, but breaks all traditions of the ballet, where at certain points men dance in women's roles and rats are used instead of mice. It's great for kids because we all know that kids like to see scary things rather than sweet and adorable ones."

Also in contrast to Oakland Ballet's and SF Ballet's traditionalism, Dance Brigade's Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie breaks boundaries by challenging what The Nutcracker represents in regards to white, middle-class American culture. This nutty, politically charged re-creation of the Nutcracker story by artistic co-directors Nina Fichter and Krissy Keefer delves into what our family values are as a community at large, incorporating all of the social phenomena and subcultures that make up the Bay Area, from Latinos, to gays and lesbians, to the disabled, to the women's movement, to multiculturalism in general.

In their 10th production (and last, due to lack of funding,) The Nutcracker Sweetie opens at the holiday party of the McGreeds, when their radical daughter Drosselmeyer shows up on a motorcycle uninvited and passes out gifts to everyone, including the Latina refugee cleaning woman Clara, who ends up receiving the fabled Nutcracker. After the Nutcracker comes to life, the dream sequence that follows includes a visit with a flock of flamingos and a journey through an underwater world full of colorful sea creatures that are suspended on thick elastic cords and swinging trapezes.

"Our reinvention is for people who really love the essence of what the Bay Area is," says Keefer, exhausted from battling the weekend's Bay Bridge traffic to get to rehearsals. "We not only wanted to build our budget with an annual production, but we also wanted to open ourselves to a family audience with a unique Nutcracker that people in the Bay Area could relate to."

Independent choreographer and dancer Robert Henry Johnson has long grappled with similar issues; namely, how to make a work as dauntingly Eurocentric as The Nutcracker accessible to the diverse audience he wants to reach. After his request was denied to have the white facial mask painted brown for his title role of The Nutcracker for the Minnesota Dance Theater in 1992, Johnson decided to stage his own version of the holiday tale, one that took the general principles from the traditional version and combined it with his own African American culture.

"It is important for us not to get mad or upset at whites or the rich," says 27-year-old Johnson, who organized his company only three years ago. "They have their thing, and non-white people have taken from that and we've used it, and it's beautiful because we combine it with our own culture. The Nutmeg Project is a work in progress with a statement for the community. Seeing black men and women performing classical ballet live causes people of all colors to react, and it challenges their emotions. Our show is for everybody."

The Nutmeg Project blends the original Tchaikovsky score with African drum rhythms and holiday jazz standards. Johnson grabs kids from the community who have never danced or performed before and stars them in the production. "It's an urban Nutcracker using the basis of Hoffmann's tale, because any black girl can relate to that," he explains. "It's narrated by a homeless man who is the spirit of Christmas and instead of furry mice we use roaches. The story is of Safiya, a girl from the Fillmore district who dreams of getting a doll the color of nutmeg as a Kwanzaa [an African-based holiday] gift. But Brother Zawasi (the Drosselmeyer character) tells her that the nutmeg doll possesses magical powers, and only those who understand the seven principles of Kwanzaa (unity, morality, etc.) may have one. The nutmeg doll comes to life, and together they discover the seven principles."

When asked why he substituted Nutmeg for Nutcracker in the show's title, Johnson laughs and says, "The artistic director for the Minnesota Dance Theater called me nutmeg as an endearment! It was all in good humor. And there's a line that goes something like this, 'Jet black, blue black, black berry, foxy brown, downtown brown, cinnamon, and honey, and when you put all those colors together, you get nutmeg.'"

Dance Brigade Dec. 21, 2 8pm, Dec. 22, 2 and 7pm. $11­$16, Scottish Rite Theatre, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, 510/652-1752.

Robert Henry Johnson Dec. 14­22 at 7:30pm, and Sun., Dec. 15 and 22 at 2pm. Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., 621-7797.

Mark Morris Dec. 14­22, Zellerbach Hall, UC-Berkeley Campus, Bancroft Way at Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, $34, $44, $52. 510/642-9988, 510/762-BASS, or at the door.

Oakland Ballet Dec. 12­29. $6-36. Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, 510/762-2277 or 415/776-1999.

San Francisco Ballet Nov. 29, 7:30pm; Nov. 30­ Dec. 1, 2 and 7:30pm; Dec. 3­4, 4 and 7:30pm; Dec. 5, 4pm; Dec. 6­7, 4 and 7:30pm; Dec. 8, 2 and 5:30pm. $20­$80. Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., 865-2000.

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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