'The Mouse Queen's Revenge,' or the Other Nutcrackers

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Why change something that works? "I've seen forty-seven Nutcrackers and I'm sick of it," says Frank Mosier, who wrote a new scenario entitled Nutcracker, the Mouse Queen's Revenge for Central California Ballet.

Artistic directors and choreographers are looking for new ways to put their own stamp on the ballet, for both artistic and business reasons. After thousands of productions and over one hundred years of performances in the United States, Nutcracker is as familiar as fruitcake during the holiday season. It is often the first and only ballet performance young Americans see.

"This can't be the real Nutcracker--there aren't any surfers!" said a young audience member in New Jersey after seeing a traditional production. The Nutcracker neophyte had been brought up on Suburban Dance Force's production, in which Clara crosses the Lemonade Sea to the 1950s tune, "Wipeout." From Hartford Ballet's new American Nutcracker to Ballet Arts Minnesota's Rollerblading rats and A Clockwork Orange-inspired Droogs, unconventional Nutcrackers are flourishing.

The two new major Nutcracker productions that premiere this year have nontraditional elements: In Derek Deane's production for English National Ballet, only the prologue will be different. "The prologue is usually sort of Victoriana," says ENB spokesman Jim Fletcher. "Derek is updating this to 1997 fashionable west London. It's going to feature characters in miniskirts, beehives, and stilettos; cocktail glasses; characters with mobile phones; children playing with computer games, etc. The rest of the ballet is traditional." Kirk Peterson's The American Nutcracker (see Presstime News, page 48) is set in the redwood forests of Northern California and includes Lotta Crabtree instead of Clara, Edwin Booth instead of Fritz, and Mark Twain as a party guest.

THE LURE OF THE FAMILIAR

Hartford Ballet notwithstanding, most companies localize the setting if they move it from the traditional Germany. Maine's Portland Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, New York City's Dances ... Patrelle, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, and Dutch National Ballet all set their Nutcrackers in their home cities, usually about one hundred years ago. Artistic directors have realized that a localized production connects the company to the community and lures audiences to see something different.

Tucson Regional Ballet and Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre's Nutcrackers go a step further to reflect the unique culture and history of their communities. TRB's Southwest Nutcracker features a Maria Martinez character as the lead, as well as a Rollerblading roadrunner, Indian Princesses, the Prickly Pear Fairy and her Caballero, Spanish Chilis, tumbling tumbleweeds, rattlesnakes, Mama Pinata, coyotes, and a Zorro look-alike called Tio Diego in place of Drosselmeyer. "We wanted to do a Nutcracker, and we had just joined Regional Dance America, an I thought, why don't we make it regional?" said TRB's artistic director Linda Walker.

BRBT's Bayou Nutcracker is set in antebellum Louisiana. "We wanted to make it uniquely ours, and to put our signature on it as the artistic directors and as the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre," says artistic director Sharon Mathews. In the BRBT version, Clara falls asleep in her home on the bayou, dreams of a party on a sumptuous plantation, and travels in a hot-air balloon to the land of sweets, set in Baton Rouge's Old State Capitol Building. The local flavor adds appeal, according to Helen Daigle. "When they see that it's set in a town from the bayou, they know it's going to touch home more than just a regular Nutcracker. I think it's a draw, especially because there is a lot of pull in this area to keep the Cajun culture alive and to keep the history here."

Just as it was for the child who missed the surfers, what once was considered nontraditional can become a tradition. Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, with sets by Maurice Sendak, has become a beloved tradition in the Northwest, though it is not really traditional; the work explores the psychological aspects of the story more than most productions and has sets in the artist's characteristic style. …