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Deconstructing the Nutmare

PERFORMING ARTS

It's high culture you can take your 5-year-old to. Can 1,000 'Nutcracker' productions be wrong?

December 07, 1997|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher, a onetime dancing snowflake and flower, is writing her doctoral dissertation on the "Nutcracker" as a ritual

Elsewhere in the world, "The Nutcracker" is still just a ballet, performed occasionally at Christmas or maybe in July, but here it has become a hallowed national trust. In a significant move toward total assimilation, Hartford Ballet has just announced a version that replaces all the European characters with real personalities from American history--19th century actress Lotta Crabtree replaces Clara, Mark Twain attends the first-act party and the Christmas tree becomes a mighty California redwood. This on the heels of Hillary Rodham Clinton decorating the White House in a "Nutcracker" motif last year (Chelsea danced in it for years). Artisans from across America were commissioned to carve mice, commemorate Tchaikovsky in needlepoint and stitch a Christmas stocking that featured "Nutcracker" soldiers guarding the Capitol building.

One proof of how powerful a tradition the ballet has become is the number of satires and spoofs that arise from it. Each year, the wickedly fun and politically potent takeoffs increase. On the professional level, Mark Morris' "Hard Nut" transports the action hilariously to the '60s and does some welcome gender-bending casting. Among community productions, there are now dance-along "Nutcrackers" (bring your own tutu) and versions that feature cameos by local politicians or celebrities. It's a healthy trend, as are the culturally diverse "Nutcrackers" popping up--contemporary choreographer Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker," which adds elements like jazz, gospel and a reverence for age--things Byrd considers important to many African Americans--to the traditional mix. Or the local production (currently taking a year off) of a bharata natyam "Nutcracker"--perhaps the only version that ditches Tchaikovsky (unsuitable for classical Indian dance). For the second-act "ethnic" dances, choreographer Viji Prakash does not use Eurocentric interpretations of indigenous dances, as in most ballet versions; instead, she uses local practitioners of various world dance traditions--the hula or belly dance.

And why not? In the new year, if you are going to feel--as one critic put it--"one more 'Nutcracker' closer to death," why shouldn't you choose the version you like best to help you celebrate the December holidays?

If you like dance at all, that is. Surprisingly, to "Nutcracker" fans, there's a whole section of the population not familiar with this yearly tradition. They must be roasting chestnuts over an open fire, while glued to the TV waiting for Jimmy Stewart to cry. An OK tradition maybe, but without the performing and community-bonding element, it doesn't seem like much of a ritual to me.

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