Imagine entering that dreamlike place of The Nutcracker ballet. There's snow falling on sugar plum fairies. Marionette dolls come to life. A handsome prince invites you to his beautiful palace. It's the kind of magic that appeals to children and adults alike. It's also a story that appeals to dance companies and choreographers, though maybe for slightly different reasons.
"The Nutcracker is one ballet that every company does because it's the best-selling thing in their repertoire," says Derryl Yeager, founder and artistic director of Odyssey Dance Co. The troupe has performed its own modern hip-hop-and-jazz-flavored ReduxNut-Cracker for the last four years. This year, Yeager and his troupe are not the only ones giving Ballet West a run for their money. Charlotte Boye-Christensen, founder, artistic director and choreographer of NOW-ID, has created It's Not Cracker as her take on the classic performance, and Sarah Longoria has created an interpretation she's calling River of Rosewater for her company, Municipal Ballet Co.
The Nutcracker hasn't always been this popular. Originally a short one-act ballet, it opened one week before Christmas in 1892 for a sold-out audience at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia—and it received terrible reviews, despite the extraordinary original score by Tchaikovsky. Part of the problem was the story, adapted from a surprisingly creepy early-19th-century fairy tale in which a young girl descends into a feverish dream-world of trickery and danger, where an evil rodent mother avenges the deaths of her children. Eventually, she becomes trapped forever in the kingdom of dolls. The ballet version tried to lighten things up a bit, but the story still felt strange and disjointed.
Fast forward 52 years to San Francisco, 1944. It's here that the ballet got its classic makeover from choreographer Willam Christensen, who later brought his version to Utah when he started Ballet West. The rest is history.
Every dancer and ballet lover can remember the first time they saw The Nutcracker. Longoria was only 5 or 6 years old when she saw the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet perform it with a live orchestra, but she still remembers that first performance, and every one thereafter. "I went every year with my mom," she says. For Boye-Christensen, the first time was in her hometown of Copenhagen, where she remembered it as "a fantastical journey." And for Yeager, the best Nutcrackers were all those he performed in as a dancer for Ballet West.
"I was doing all the major roles a male dancer could do," he recalls. "One year they let me perform Drosselmeyer, and I would spend hours doing the old-man makeup. I was fortunate to have the chance to perform The Nutcracker under Willam Christensen, but I did it for years and I had my fill. When I started Odyssey Dance Co., I thought I could only do it if I could do something cool with it, something new."
Making something new from a beloved classic can be dangerous. Choreographers risk treading on sacred ground, on one hand being too derivative, and on the other straying too far and losing the essence that was so alluring. But, they can also score, like Mr. Christensen, and come up with something that freshens up a work, making it more relatable for modern audiences. This is, of course, what each of these local choreographers has tried to do with the source material, each following a unique sense of style and sense of relevance.
For Yeager, that means getting rid of the nutcracker. "It makes no sense to kids," he says. "Our nuts come cracked these days." So what could be the catalyst for a dream, a portal to other worlds? Your iPhone. In ReduxNut-Cracker, Clara's phone takes her to Spain, Russia, a field with Angry Birds. It's entertaining, and certainly new.
Boye-Christensen also wants a more modern, urban context. "It's Not Cracker does not follow the traditional narrative," she says. "I took out the relationship scenes and put the emphasis on a journey of discovery." She's also invited the local Bboy Federation dance crew to spice up some battle scenes, and local artist Artemis to spin Tchaikovsky music with a mix of urban sounds.
Longoria's interpretation sticks closest to the original. "In my mind, our story starts with Clara 10 years later [circa 1920s] at another holiday party. It's about people," Longoria says about Clara's crazy, absinthe-fueled dream. The music remains Tchaikovsky's, though it's arranged and performed live by Pixie and the Partygrass Boys as the audience follows the dancers through the beautiful McCune Mansion. It's just one more fresh idea, waiting to become a new classic.