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'Nutcrackers' : Nutty, Cracked-Up 'Nutcrackers'

December 20, 1987|JANICE ROSS | Ross is a San Francisco correspondent for Dance magazine and dance critic for the Oakland Tribune.

SAN FRANCISCO — Picture this "Nutcracker":

Clara is first a black, then an Asian, and finally a Latin American refugee. Drosselmeyer is a homosexual, skateboarding punk whose lover just died of AIDS. The Nutcracker is an African woman warrior who alerts Clara to possibilities for upgrading her life. "The Waltz of the Flowers" is a prancing catalogue of endangered species--including flamingos dying of radiation poisoning.

This fervently topical scenario is the basis of the Berkeley-based Dance Brigade's "The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie," which closes a six-performance run today in Oakland's Laney College Theater. It represents the dance world's newest answer to that perennial Christmas quiz for choreographers: "How would you stage 'The Nutcracker' today?"

The five members of this feminist dance collective have answered with a two-act, two-hour treatise on what ails America and the world.

"We first began to think of doing a 'Nutcracker' four or five years ago," says Nina Fichter, co-founder of the Dance Brigade and co-choreographer of its anti-Sugar Plum "Nutcracker."

"Like everyone else, we knew 'Nutcracker' was the ideal vehicle for expanding our audience. The problem was, it's such a status quo ballet. We wanted to do a 'Nutcracker' that said something. We wanted it to be a production that made people relate to dance as part of their lives."

The Dance Brigade's "Nutcracker" is nothing if not rabidly anti- status quo.

Oakland composer Mary Watkins has adapted Tchaikovsky's durable score into a booming jazz-rock opus played by a pit band of rock musicians and a string quartet.

Although (as in George Balanchine's traditional version) the Mouse King is a seven-headed monster, each head, according to Fichter, represents one of this decade's banal masters of evil: Augusto Pinochet, Jim Bakker, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, P. W. Botha, Pope John Paul II and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

The libretto, created by New York writer Cathy Cevoli, sounds like a Dr. Seuss rewrite of "The Communist Manifesto." A sample:

McGreed (the Brigade's renaming of Mr. Stahlbaum, host to the first-act Christmas party) owned the foundry, the highway, the school,

The gas and electric, the clubhouse, the pool The radio station, and that isn't all. He owned the museum. He owned City Hall. He owned all the water in everyone's wells, The basketball team and the better hotels. The college was his, and the board of trustees. In the park he owned Shakespeare and all of the trees. And from very high up in his corporate quarters, He managed the paper and all the reporters, The railroad, the fountain, and saddest to say, He owned the ballet, Though he couldn't plie.

The Dance Brigade version, while distinctly sui generis, joins a surprisingly long list of adventuresome (if not nutty) "Nutcracker" restagings. Indeed, these revisionist productions are part of a tradition of changes that began as soon the ballet premiered in 1892.

When Lev Ivanov first presented his choreography based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale of a childhood Eden haunted with magical wonder and terrifying visions of evil, Czar Alexander III was one of the few in the audience at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater who was pleased.

Those who weren't--designers and choreographers foremost among them--started tinkering with "The Nutcracker" almost immediately.

The Russians themselves mounted one of the first major revisions in a short-lived production after World War I that gave a Marxist interpretation to the ballet's battle between the toy soldiers and regiments of mice.

Other productions have featured rats of a different order. One of the most often exploited relationships in the ballet is that between Clara and her godfather, Dr. Drosselmeyer. Freudian interpretations have always been popular, particularly among male choreographers.

Rudolf Nureyev's 1968 production for the Royal Ballet focused on the dark side of the relationship between Clara and Drosselmeyer, depicting a young girl sexually obsessed with a limping old man.

What one writer referred to as "this agony of the analyst's couch and tortured sexuality brought into 'Nutcracker' " continued, albeit in a more jocular vein, in designer Maurice Sendak's 1983 production for Kent Stowell's Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here hints of a manipulative and sadistic relationship between Drosselmeyer and Clara and Clara's little brother added a contemporary edge of nightmarish horror to the plot. Stowell's production was subsequently adapted for "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture."

In a 1966 production for Stuttgart Ballet, John Cranko jettisoned the idea of a Christmas party altogether, making the opening celebration Clara's birthday. Instead of Drosselmeyer, an eccentric aunt watched over Clara and steered Clara's cavalier back to her when he started to stray toward other pretty faces in the shuffling multitude at the party.

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