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Going Completely Nuts

Forget traditional 'Nutcrackers.' Coming soon: A 1960s suburbia modernization and versions using African American and Hindu lore.

November 24, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Like Handel's oratorio "The Messiah" and dramatizations of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," productions of "The Nutcracker" are annual performance rituals that bind audiences together and affirm societal values--but also offer visions of cruelty and death en route to their joyous conclusions.

Of the three, "The Nutcracker" is the youngest and easily the most malleable, existing in so many versions that nothing is certain anymore--not the first name of its child-heroine (is she Clara or Marie?), not her last name (Stahlbaum or Silberhaus?), nor what happens to her at the end of her eventful Christmas dream:

Does she stay asleep, wake up, grow up, run away or die? The answer is yes: All that happens and more in different productions that can be seen this season locally on stage or television. You can also find a major "Nutcracker" or two on world stages without a recognizable nutcracker, without a Sugar Plum Fairy, without children, even without Christmas.

Originally, you will recall, "The Nutcracker" started off with a depiction of a Christmas party, then grew scary in a nightmarish battle between mice and toy soldiers--and suddenly turned sumptuously classical in a display of dancing snowflakes. With virtually all the plot used up before intermission, Act 2 relied on showpiece after showpiece set in the Kingdom of Sweets.

Although "The Sleeping Beauty" offers lots more Tchaikovsky music and even less plot, it has escaped the wholesale tinkering suffered by "The Nutcracker" through most of this century and, in particular, the radical psychosexual revisions imposed by two generations of Soviet choreographers.

Happily, that wave of reinterpretation has passed, so if you want to see Clara/Marie sexually molested by the mice, hit on by Drosselmeyer or transformed from a child-in - a - nightgown to a woman - in - a - tutu, you'll have to search among the seven or eight different adaptations that typically re-screen on television each Christmas.

On stage, however, the big "Nutcracker" news right now could be described as environmental: a rejection of the antique, Imperial Russian approach in favor of an attack more contemporary and much closer to home.

Three "Nutcracker" productions on California stages this season ground the traditional story of a Christmas dream in the multicultural realities of modern America.

Scheduled for its West Coast premiere engagement Dec. 14-21 at UC Berkeley, Mark Morris' 5-year-old "The Hard Nut" moves the ballet to 1960s suburbia, where he grew up, with the fashions, behavior and rock dances of that period existing in outrageous yet meticulous counterpoint to the beloved 1892 score: dirty dancing to Tchaikovsky. Though the production won't be traveling to Los Angeles, it has been seen on PBS and is available on home video.

Donald Byrd's brand-new "Harlem Nutcracker" (Wiltern Theatre, Dec. 27-29) also uses American social dances along with show dancing, but develops a distinctive African American perspective on "Nutcracker" lore through its boldly revamped story and the use of Duke Ellington's fabled jazz adaptation of Tchaikovsky's themes.

Finally, Viji Prakash's Hindu-ized 1993 "Nutcracker" (James Armstrong Theater in Torrance, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) retells the familiar story in a different movement language: Bharata Natyam, an ancient classical dance idiom of India. Moreover, only echoes of Tchaikovsky remain in the new score by Babu Parameswaran.

A dancer, choreographer and teacher who has built a large following in the Southland with traditional and experimental Bharata Natyam productions, Prakash is after something more complex than merely transferring "The Nutcracker" to South Asia. With its inclusion of all-American baton-twirling, Hawaiian hula girls and dancing Hershey's Kisses, her version reflects the overlapping cultural identities and possible fantasies of a child raised in Southern California of parents from India: perhaps a child very much like her own dancing daughter Mythili, who plays the Nutcracker.

However, Prakash, like Morris and Byrd, denies any direct autobiographical connections, saying, "I think 'The Nutcracker' is a universal story--there is a Clara and a Drosselmeyer in every culture. I have strongly identified parts of my production with America, so it is most relevant for those of us who live and grow up here. But, ultimately, I would like people to see it without geographical or cultural constraints--and leave the theater thinking about the inner meaning of Clara's fantasy."

Nor should audiences consider the dancing as typical Prakash classicism. "There are more jumps and upper torso movements than in traditional Bharata Natyam," she explains, "more flowing movements rather than the constant pounding of the feet. And our costumes are what we'd wear in India socially, not the customary dance clothing."

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