at Centre East
Attending The Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition for many American families, and productions abound in every city. In Chicago, we've become accustomed to a long run every year of Ruth Page's delightful version at the Arie Crown. But the Des Moines Ballet, recently renamed Ballet Iowa, has been bringing its own smaller-scale but uniquely humorous and charming version to Centre East for a number of years. I recall fondly a particularly funny scene with several plump chefs carrying oversize ladles.
Now this ambitious company has imported a new version of The Nutcracker, with a libretto and choreography by Kennet Oberly, loosely based on the original tale "The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice," by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The core company is small, only 11 people. (Students from the School of Ballet Iowa and the Des Moines area round out this production.) But instead of letting its size detract from its vision, Ballet Iowa has wisely opted for novelty--and you not only forget the "shortcoming," it seems a bonus. Acknowledging that there will be many children in the audience, Ballet Iowa caters to their taste by providing familiar scenes (building a snowman, having a snowball fight) and incorporating gimmicks, like a puppet show, sure to delight any young viewer--and frankly, any adult, for there's still a child lurking in all of us. And the production doesn't lower its standards in any way--there is no condescension to the children. Protracted lyrical sequences are danced ably and with the proper classical spirit.
By changing the plot--and even the names of several characters--this production makes The Nutcracker more accessible, more tangible to the young viewer. Clara becomes Maria, her friend is Katherine, and Maria's brother is Alex instead of Franz. Jonathan is the lucky boy who gets the toy soldier nutcracker, and Maria gets a ballerina nutcracker. By putting the Nutcracker in the familiar context of other toys, it becomes less of a rarity. (A child behind me asked her mother whether she had one of those, wondering why not.)
Only Drosselmeyer retains his name--and as the magician who brings the toys and is responsible for their transformation, he should be exotic and have a foreign-sounding name. In this Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer is not a malevolent manipulator but a heroic conciliator--an adult who shares a secret with the children of which other adults are unaware. This is the stuff of dreams for children, yet the romantic story that accompanies the secret will please adults, too.
In this altered version, Drosselmeyer is a puppeteer with a trunkful of holiday toys. But before giving them away, he puts on a performance with them: the ballerina-princess and her soldier-prince fight the evil rat, who wants the ballerina for himself. When Alex receives the rat nutcracker toy, he grabs for the soldier nutcracker Jonathan got; during their scuffle the soldier is beheaded. The parents patch up the toys, but Maria is so upset that she goes to take a nap and brings the soldier and ballerina nutcrackers with her.
Napping, Maria has a dream that's like a life-size version of the puppet theater, with Drosselmeyer (Tamas Szabev) transformed into the Prince and puppets from the theater helping him fight the Rat King (Christopher Flory). Maria (Carmen Rossi) comes to their aid by killing him, not with her slipper, as Clara traditionally does, but with the soldier's detached head. The reunited Prince and Ballerina (Elizabeth Harano) take Maria to a winter wonderland complete with ice skaters, then back to the theater for a gala performance in her honor. The battling cohorts each perform a variation--Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Mirliton dances--and Maria is also treated to a Waltz of the Flowers (there's no Sugarplum Fairy in sight, but we don't miss her). When Maria wakes up, she can't find her nutcracker toys. But a knowing look from Drosselmeyer before he leaves hints at a reason for their mysterious disappearance. When the curtains to the puppet theater are parted, there they both are, "united forever," as the program synopsis puts it.
What the program notes can't relate, however, is the wit and charm with which the innovative story is set. Realistic touches throughout make the characters more human, as when the girls shiver visibly as they're learning to skate in the first scene, or when the boys remove the snowman's stick arms and turn them into weapons for their "swordfight." (And they fight to their mimed "death" with a vicious sincerity that foreshadows the more serious life-and-death struggle to come.) Maria, in a solemn little ceremony, knights the victor--and the brief sequence is like the games children play, mimicking what they've seen their elders do, taking it all so seriously, as if it were real. Drosselmeyer's puppet show is fascinating because the nutcracker toys are really being manipulated--they don't just look like dancing puppets--and their "performance" is hilarious, especially the fast rain of blows the Prince and the Rat deal each other. (It has the immediacy and violence of a Punch-and-Judy show.) To enhance the effect of a life-size theater during the dream, set designers Thea Albert and Gerri Leahy have strung giant puppets on ropes across the ceiling. When Maria is at the gala performance, the backdrop is a painted audience. She begins the second act by dancing to them, the "real" audience, with her back to us. So do the other soloists, until the Prince and Ballerina appear, and gradually the perspective shifts until Maria is seated in a chair in front of the backdrop, as if she were one of the painted members of the audience. Frank Affrunti in the Arabian variation is bare-chested, but he doesn't have the conventionally shaved chest of the male ballet dancer. This is an American he-man dancing, profuse dark chest hair intact, not a traditional regal Russian.
This production's details are so realistic and convincing that when the ballet departs from realism, the fairy-tale elements are doubly magical. When the giant-size "puppets" materialize, lined up for battle, they appear to have been whisked in from nowhere by the Prince's silent cry for help. And when the puppet-theater trappings fall away to reveal the wondrous winter scene, the transformation is so magical that a little girl seated a few seats from me couldn't stop giggling (to the entertainment of all the adults around her). The fur-trimmed, blue-toned costumes of the women in the wintry scene (all costumes by Erin Gritsch and Cynthia A. Drake) are fairy-tale lovely, but nothing prepares us for the exquisite beauty of act one's final moments, with the snow falling thickly before the dancers and smoke filling the stage. The Prince and his Ballerina dance imperiously in the middle, the other couples around them equally elegant. The men, in ballet versions of tuxes, hold the women aloft, and they appear to be floating through the air. Maria gazes rapturously around her, much as the children in the audience are doing. There is a brief reminder of this scene in the finale, at the end of act two, but nothing to compare with it.
The dancing is almost secondary in this production, but gradually you realize that what had seemed unassertive dancing is not merely pleasant but pleasurable. Harano as the Ballerina really grows on you; she must have a great deal of stage presence to hold her own against the spectacle of the production. Her wide smile is like Maria Tallchief's, and she has the same dark good looks. Szabev has that rare, much coveted quality, ballon. Both have what it takes to create that special illusion in dance, a belief in the reality of princes and princesses. You don't need a superstar to achieve that magic, only the hard work of a professional.
These regional ballet dancers, like so many others across the country who give Nutcracker after Nutcracker performance year after year, are the backbone of ballet, mainstays of the art form. They create a vision of fluid grace that will fill the minds of the children and adults who've seen them for years to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Danielson.