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December 5, 2010

The "Other" Nutcracker, Part 1

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I was in the cast of "The Nutcracker" for many years before I actually sat in a theatre and watched this holiday classic (or chestnut, depending on your point of view). It never occurred to me to question the passed-down, century-old portrayals of bobble-headed Chinese, gauzily shrouded Arabs, and leaping, twirling Russians, all of whom populate the ballet's second act in the Land of the Sweets. Until, that is, I went to Denmark in 1992. It was there, at the Royal Danish Ballet's Bournonville Festival, that I ran headlong into "Far From Denmark," one of the dozen or so remaining 19th-century ballets from Danish master August Bournonville. It was a scene with black-faced, flat-footed South American "natives" in nappy wigs that stopped me cold. I finally understood how "The Nutcracker" -- an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's children's fantasy "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" -- could offend.

Yet, we don't generally throw a work out the canon because, by definition, it has enduring value that transcends the particular period in which it was created. We adapt it. We make it palatable.

As the "Nutcracker" season has gotten underway, two variations on this theme happened to catch my eye. The first was City Ballet of Los Angeles' "The Nutcracker Swings." 

City Ballet of Los Angeles was founded in 2000 by Robyn Gardenhire, an African-American ballerina who performed with American Ballet Theatre and White Oak Dance Project, among other prominent companies. A native Angeleno, she returned to the city to create a school and company that "represents Los Angeles in style, movement and intensity" -- and represents Los Angeles' cultural diversity. The school is located in a poor area of downtown Los Angeles, and Gardenhire has indeed attracted a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities among her students and 12 professional dancers. The audience Friday night mirrored this mix.

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Gardenhire, who created the choreography (bare-bones and elementary in style), combines sections from Peter Tchaikovsky's original score with pieces from Duke Ellington's hip, jazzy "Nutcracker Suite" from 1960. She set "Nutcracker Swings" in 1942 Los Angeles, with World War II and the Depression as reference points. The ballet is a mishmash of images. The male lead is a character named Jim (Donte Philips), who comes home from the war on Christmas Eve to the delight of his mother (Sloan Robinson, who also narrates). Robinson hosts the cheerfully raucous party. The heroine Maria (Ellen Rosa, right, with Philips) lives with Jim's mother, and is depicted as the beloved maid. 

Jim is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a disturbing flashback, performed during the music traditionally reserved for the toy soldier-mechanical doll dance. The mice wear pith helmets, and the Mouse King is depicted as Hitler. Jim and his nemesis fire pistols at one another, a dubious choreographic choice (among others), given the gun violence that causes terror in the city's poorer black and Latino neighborhoods.

Those aforementioned national dances of the second act are here staged as a floor show at the Brown Derby nightclub. There is a Spanish and Arabian number, but also an Illusionist performing card tricks and a solo for a Soldier (more warfare?). Gardenhire turned the Chinese variation into a dance from Japan, which happened to be performed by a dancer born in Korea (Hye Won Pyo).

A stage-full of adorable, earnest children -- and City Ballet has those aplenty -- provided distraction from a multitude of sins. Still, like me, the friendly audience members with whom I chatted -- and they stumbled upon the production through e-mail blasts and discount ticket offers -- well, we were scratching our heads at a number of the choices made for "Nutcracker Swings."


Next week, part 2: Debbie Allen's "Hot Chocolate Nutcracker."

December 5, 2010 9:35 PM | | Comments (0)

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