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Flash Review 2, 11-27: Building a Better 'Nutcracker'
Lustig and Brown Give ARB's Production a Facelift

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000 Christine Chen

PRINCETON, New Jersey -- How do you make something as familiar and banal as "The Nutcracker" seem fresh? How do you avoid associations and comparisons to previous versions? How do you establish a unique voice, look and style within the tight structure of the ballet as defined by the Tchaikovsky/Petipa score? How can a company differentiate itself from the sea of other companies competing for the same Nutcracker audience? These are some questions that must simultaneously drive and paralyze artistic directors like American Repertory Ballet's Graham Lustig in their incessant quest to recreate the perennial holiday classic.

"The Nutcracker" is the cash cow of the ballet industry -- one of the few productions that actually turn a profit for many companies (mostly due to the children, on stage and off). However, with so many available versions, from the amateurism of Dolly Dinkle studios to the professionalism of New York City Ballet, it seems like companies must continue to add their own twists, interpretations and production elements to differentiate themselves from the other options on the market. This trend towards more diverse, idiosyncratic readings of "The Nutcracker" has recently lured modern choreographers and companies (such as Mark Morris and Daniel Ezralow) to dabble in the cottage industry of snow confetti, growing trees, and Sugarplum Fairy magic and contribute to the Nutcracker canon. While not a modern company, American Repertory Ballet has become increasingly known for its contemporary flair, so when Graham Lustig took over as artistic director last year, he set out to redesign the old classic to better fit the more daring image of the company.

I, like many other dancers, have a love-hate relationship with "The Nutcracker" and, inevitably, I bring associations and memories from my sordid Nutcracker history to any new production I view. I have known many Nutcrackers and have seen many more. I am particularly close to previous ARB stagings (I was in the cast from 1985-1989 and my sister was in the cast from 1995-1999). As I write, I am sitting in a rehearsal for the Shore Ballet's production in which my sister is currently dancing. I even have an ongoing mental list of Nutcracker's Greatest Hits. The Top Five Best Moments off-hand (and in no particular order) are 1) The psycho-sexual drama between Drosselmeier, his nephew and Marie in Morris's "The Hard Nut" trio; 2) The sheer virtuosity of and magical chemistry between Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in the former legend's adaptation 3) The irreverent musicality of Morris's snowflakes 4) The overt eroticism between former ARB dancers David Pittenger and Molly Daly in the Arabian Divertissement and 5) City Ballet's tree. Just missing the list: Macaulay Caulkin as the Prince in the movie version of...just kidding. But honestly, my list is equally influenced by nostalgia and quality. Everyone has these lists (however consciously they admit to them) that they bring as a lens through which to view and compare any new Nutcracker production.

Graham Lustig unveiled his new Nutcracker vision at McCarter Theater in Princeton this weekend, and as I watched his latest creation, I found it difficult to resist comparing it to previous Nutcrackers and instead view it in its own light. While I tried to make my judgments with fresh eyes, I most often rely on comparison to talk about this production here.

Difficult as it was for me to divorce my previous memories of "The Nutcracker" from this production, Lustig faced a far greater challenge as a choreographer trying to find a distinctive voice amidst a cloud of expectations associated with the famed ballet. He tackled this formidable task by completely overhauling ARB's 37-year-old Nutcracker institution. He began by collaborating with Emmy award-winning designer Zack Brown who, through his Klimt-inspired costumes and sets, brought a distinguishing aesthetic to Lustig's new version. The sets were bold; the lines of the Stahlbaum house were clean and contained broad strokes of geometric shapes. The color palette -- black, white, brown and sea-foam green -- was distinctive and much less Christmas-y than most productions. The transformation/battle scene contained a large broken teacup and a giant hunk of cake from which mice emerged yielding jumbo forks and (for the king) a butter knife. For the snow scene, Brown painted a crystal blue picture of a frozen lake, birches, and snow-covered conifers (faux confetti snow was notably absent). Marie and her Prince were transported to the cotton candy pink Kingdom of the Sweets in a hot-air balloon that rose into the theater's fly space. In Act II, they made themselves comfortable on an oversized cupcake while they watched the presentation of the divertissements.

The costumes were also highly stylized, from the high-neck sailor collared flowing dresses in the party scene to the three-foot wide fluffy human snowball poofs in the snow scene, to the enormous (and cumbersome) peppermint and bon-bon get-ups in the Kingdom of the Sweets. Many of these costumes, which the younger dancers were stuck with to negotiate, were so grandiose they made the Sugarplum Fairy's tutu seem downright pedestrian.

Lustig additionally resituated the action in the Edwardian period rather than the Victorian era, ostensibly to achieve a feel of modernity. He also introduced a storyline for Marie's cousin Vera, who is courted by a cadet in Act I. Marie's curiosity in this narrative presumably helps us to understand her later infatuation with the Nutcracker Prince.

The party scene contained fewer children and more dancing than most other productions. The choreography was simple but aptly performed -- a single phrase danced by the children and adults in unison and in canon replaced the more formal walking patterns often performed by a mass of children. There were brief solos to highlight Marie, played by Jennifer Wilkinson, but the Vera/Cadet duo performed by Peggy Petteway and Sean Mahoney was most markedly highlighted.

In his effort to infuse this scene with more kinetic energy, however, Lustig sacrificed character definition and plot exposition. Knowing the story, the predominantly Nutcracker-savvy audience was not lost, but I never got a sense that there was a core family, nor would I have understood how Marie, Vera, and the guests were related were it not for my prior knowledge or the program notes. Because Marie's real world was not fully developed, her later escapade/dream seemed disconnected. This could have to do, too, with the fact that most of the cast did not seem to live in their parts yet. Mimetic gestures were fairly superficial and did little to convey emotion or content. I am certainly not calling for more mime -- I am definitely pro-dancing. But somehow, either through spacing or pacing, Lustig could have done better to introduce his main characters.

The battle scene gave pause for another "huh?" moment. Typically this scene features a contest between the sharply precise, tightly united, formation marching soldiers under the command of the Nutcracker and the unruly, irreverent, energetic mice led by their king. The soldiers here lacked their usual discipline and the battle was, as a result, a cacophony of undirected movement chaos. So much so that all of a sudden the mouse king was dead and I never saw whodunit. I looked to Marie who, now played by professional Jennifer Cavanaugh, still had both of her shoes on her feet. Then I looked to the Nutcracker, who was staggering on the other side of the stage and seemed incapable of inflicting the mortal wound to the king. Thus, the unsolved mystery: How did the king die? A look through the program notes at intermission revealed that Marie had indeed stabbed the mouse king rather than delivering the fatal blow with her slipper. This is an essential plot moment and if my attention was not directed to it through lighting design, choreography or performance (and I know what to expect), how might an uninitiated audience member be expected to deduce this far-fetched sequence of events?

I started off by discussing everyone's familiarity with "The Nutcracker," but it is still a story ballet and at some point should convey a sense of the story whether through mime, gestures, movement, images, structure, etcetera -- after all, Kenneth Branagh does not dispense with the plot of "Hamlet" just because everyone knows the story. Lustig takes the familiarity of "The Nutcracker" for granted and leaves the characters and the plot half-baked. If Lustig were to use and assume audience familiarity to challenge our expectations in some way, as Morris did with his blatantly self-referential "Hard Nut," this would be excusable, but he does not, so the ambiguity of the characters and the plot are a shortcoming of this production. Again, though, this vagueness might be less problematic once the performers crystallize their roles.

While Act I, as Petipa defined it, was heavily narrative-driven, Act II contained virtually no story. Lustig made no attempt to rectify this imbalance in Act II, nor did he attempt to further rationalize the presentation of the divertissements. So besides the brilliant (I use this mostly in the color sense) new costumes, not much seemed different in the Magical Kingdom of the Sweets, and the variations were as stereotypical as ever: The Spanish dance was flirtatious, the Chinese dance perky, the Arabian dance sexy, the Russian dance boisterous, and the German dance crisp and technical. Mother Ginger appeared nervously wobbly on her stilts and her ostentatious children emerged not from beneath her skirt but upstage from behind the set. The flowers, like the snowflakes in Act I, were sparse. In both dances Lustig seemed to be going for quality over quantity, populating the stage only with company dancers who, while they were wonderfully capable, failed to fill either the space or the lush musicality of the score with their presence alone.

Mary Barton and Wil Turner gave clean performances as the Sugarplum Fairy and the Cavalier respectively, but the highlight of the evening, for me, was Jennifer Cavanaugh's delightfully whimsical portrayal of Marie. Her sense of phrasing and movement flow brought depth to the adolescent excitability of Marie's character and particularly stood out against the other unrealized characterizations.

While many aspects of the production were problematic, I think a lot of the kinks, particularly in terms of performance, will be worked out this season alone as ARB brings the production to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the State Theater in New Brunswick, the Trenton War Memorial, and the State Theater in Easton, Pennsylvania, before returning to McCarter Theater at the end of December.

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