A hip-hop Nutcracker? A Brooklyn Nutcracker? This holiday, there's more than one way to crack a nut
Like ketchup, "The Nutcracker" used to come in only one variety.
But this is an age of over-choice. Jalapeño, sriracha and onion-bacon ketchup now vie for supermarket space — and why should the cultural marketplace be any different?
So this holiday season, take your pick. There are Hip Hop Nutcrackers. Americana Nutcrackers. Messagy Nutcrackers. Traditional Nutcrackers. Nutcrackers of every flavor, every culture, every zip code, every level of sophistication.
"This is a story about young people who fall in love, and their love creates a magic that defeats evil, and we need that now more than ever," says Kurtis Blow, the rap pioneer and hitmaker ("The Breaks," "Christmas Rappin' " "Basketball," "Party Time?").
Since 2014 he's been busting a move as MC for the annual production of "The Hip Hop Nutcracker" at Newark's NJPAC. This year, you can see it Dec. 14.
"This takes place in New York City, in modern times, and they are breakdancing to Tchaikovsky's music," Blow says.
The performers don't spit rhymes in this boogie-down twist on the classic ballet (nor should they: hip-hop, in its broadest sense, also encompasses breakdancing and graffiti art).
Instead, twelve acrobatic dancers pop and spin against a digital background, while DJ Boo, abetted by a hip-hop violinist, puts urban beats underneath Tchaikovsky's waltzes and pas de deux. In the end, Blow brings the whole theater to its collective feet with an epic rendition of "The Breaks."
"The story is about love," Blow says. "The other thing is that it takes place during the holiday season. You just want to grab ahold of your friends and loved ones and say, 'Thank you for putting up with me all year.' That's the whole spirit. It's love against hate, love against evil, love against tragedy, and love conquers all. That's the theme."
'The Nutcracker' begins
In the original "Nutcracker," needless to say, there are no knee drops, head flips or corkscrews.
Tchaikovsky's 1892 Christmas ballet, about a little girl who dreams herself into the kingdom of sweets, has become an annual cash cow for arts centers, and a matchless recruitment tool for dance studios.
But although the "Nutcracker Suite" music was always popular, the actual ballet didn't become a U.S. holiday tradition until 1954, when George Balanchine choreographed his famous version for the New York City Ballet. That version — the gold standard to some — can be seen through Dec. 30 at Lincoln Center.
Most regional companies, like the New Jersey Ballet (they have performances Dec. 1 and 2 at bergenPAC in Englewood, and Dec. 14 to 27 at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown), have their own choreography — but it tends not to stray far from the Balanchine model. Generally, there's a Sugar Plum Fairy. A gigantic Christmas tree. A "Mother Ginger" character, whose enormous hoop-skirts conceal a tribe of urchins. And a nut-cracking doll who turns into a handsome prince.
But there's traditional, and traditional. The National Ballet Theatre of Odessa's version, unfamiliar to most of us, might be the most authentic of all.
"Balanchine did his own choreography, which is totally different," says Igor Levin, the impresario who is bringing the Odessa company to NJPAC on Dec. 17.
This Russian troupe uses 1934 choreography by Vasili Vainonen, which is one generation and 4,000 miles closer to the original 19th century production in St. Petersburg.
"Balanchine is doing it more as a Christmas play," Levin says. "But people in Russia do it more like it's a love story between Masha and the Prince."
Masha, or Marie, or Clara, depending on the production, is the little girl — or not so little, depending on whether the choreographer sees "The Nutcracker" as a child's innocent fantasy or a teen girl's erotic awakening. "In our version, she's 12 years old," Levin says. "She's not a small girl, but she's not a teenager yet. She dances with the prince. The prince comes to her dream."
A 'Nutcracker' with a message
Using that same basic Vainonen choreography, the Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker," coming to William Paterson University's Shea Center in Wayne on Nov. 30, has struck out in a new — and timely — direction.
In their version, the Land of Sweets has been replaced by The Land of Peace and Harmony. And Masha is escorted there by a "Dove of Peace," two dancers who do an added pas de deux at the top of act two.
The international "divertissements" that make up the most famous part of Tchaikovsky's score — the Chinese dance, the Russian dance, and so on — become a plea for multicultural harmony, incorporating 12-foot puppets.
"In the traditional ballet, [Masha] just sits there and looks at the dancers," says Akiva Talmi, the Moscow Ballet's producer. "What we've done, instead of just looking, she travels with the Dove of Peace around the world, bringing the message of peace. She goes to Arabia and brings the Dove of Peace. She goes to Russia and brings the Dove of Peace."
Given current world tensions, and in particular the charged relationship between the U.S. and Russia, the message is an urgent one. What better vehicle than "The Nutcracker," certainly the best Christmas present that Russia ever gave to the West, to deliver it?
Anyway, Talmi hopes so. He's an international peace worker who was very active during the 1990s Glasnost period. He thinks this is something we need to hear now.
"This is a very dangerous time," he says. "The only thing an advocate can do is advocacy. We hope to have an educational impact."
Even with the U.N. trimmings, this "Nutcracker" is not so much of a departure. But starting in the 1990s, dance companies have felt freer to experiment.
There's "The Hard Nut," the 1991 version by the Mark Morris Dance Group that set the story in the 1970s, while also incorporating elements of the original 1816 E.T.A. Hoffman story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," on which "The Nutcracker" is loosely based. It's back this year, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, from Dec. 14 to 23.
There's "The Nut/Cracked," a madcap reinvention by New York's Flea Theater Dec. 20 to 22, which uses Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn and Glenn Miller jazz versions of the music while incorporating tap, disco, and bubble wrap ("The Harlem Nutcracker," a 1996 version by Donald Byrd, also uses the Ellington arrangements).
And there have been any number of "Nutcrackers" that transport the original story to different times and climes.
"The Brooklyn Nutcracker," presented by the Brooklyn Ballet (Dec. 14, Kings Theatre) puts it in Flatbush. "The Yorkville Nutcracker," by Dances Patrelle (Dec. 6 to 9, Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College) sets the story at Gracie Mansion in 1895.
"We wanted to do something that was all about the area," says Justin Allen, managing director of Dances Petrelle, based in Yorkville, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and founded by choreographer Francis Patrelle.
This "Nutcracker" is the fantasy of the mayor's children, after an international Christmas Eve party attended by diplomats (and also Teddy Roosevelt, then New York's police commissioner) fills their heads with foreign intrigue. "That explains why the children are having a dream of Spaniards dancing, and Russians dancing," Allen says.
"The Yorkville Nutcracker" incorporates other New York settings. The Act I snow scene becomes a tableau of skaters in Central Park, with the then-new Dakota Apartment Building looming in the background. The kingdom of Sweets is now the New York Botanical Garden, which explains the waltzing flowers.
"It's really a wonderful production," Allen says. "This is our 23rd year."
The appeal of "The Nutcracker," in short, seems to transcend all styles, all settings. What is it that makes this particular ballet so universal? Levin, who comes from Samara, the sixth largest Russian city, thinks he has an idea.
"First, this is a ballet that has the greatest, greatest music," he says. "And second, good kills bad."
"Hip Hop Nutcracker." 8 p.m. Dec. 14, Prudential Hall, NJPAC, I Center Street, Newark. 1-888-GO-NJPAC or njpac.org. $29 to $79.
"The Nutcracker," National Ballet Theatre of Odessa. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 16, Prudential Hall, NJPAC. $29 to $79.
"The Nutcracker," New Jersey Ballet. 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 1 and 2, bergenPAC, 30 N. Van Brunt Street, Englewood. 201-227-1030 or bergenpac.org. $23 to $53. Also Dec. 14 to 27 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at Mayo Performing Arts Center, 100 South Street, Morristown. 973-539-8008 or mayoarts.org. $29 to $69.
"The Great Russian Nutcracker," Moscow Ballet. 7 p.m. Nov. 30, Shea Center for the Performing Arts, William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne. 973-720-2000 or tickets.wpunj.edu $47 to $67.
"The Yorkville Nutcracker," presented by Dances Patrelle. At the Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College, 68th Street between Park and Lexington Aves. 7 p.m. Dec. 6, 7, 8; 5 p.m. Dec. 9, with matinees 2 p.m. Dec. 8 and noon Dec. 9. 212 772 4448 or dancespatrelle.org. $65.
"The Brooklyn Nutcracker," Brooklyn Ballet. 7 p.m. Dec. 14, Kings Theatre
1027 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. 718 246-0146 or brooklynballet.org. $20 to $110.
"George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," New York City Ballet, through Dec. 30. David H. Koch Theatre, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. (212) 496-0600 or nycballet.com. $80 to $295, depending on performance and seat.
"The Nutcracker," New Jersey Dance Theater Ensemble. 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Dec. 9. Memorial Auditorium at Montclair State University, 1 Normal Ave., Montclair. 908-273-5500 or njdte.org. $35 for adults.\
"The Hard Nut," Mark Morris Dance Group, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 15, 20, 21, 22. 2 p.m. Dec. 15 and 22, 3 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23. Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House, Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn. Tickets $25 to $125 depending on seat and performance. (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org
"The Nut/Cracked," 7 p.m. Dec. 20 to 22., 3 p.m. matinee Dec. 22. The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York. $35 to $57. 212 226-0051 or theflea.org
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