The holiday season is always a festive blur, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on American Contemporary Ballet’s The Nutcracker Suite. It’s the company’s first, um, crack at staging the beloved classic in such a way that audiences can actually enter a fantastical world of sweets and snowflakes for 60 minutes and afterward, sip some hot cocoa with the Sugar Plum Fairy.
This wholly original production by ACB artistic director Lincoln Jones—which runs select dates, beginning this Friday through December 23—has so many things going for it that most Nutcracker performances don’t. For one, the space is located on the 32nd floor of downtown’s the Bloc, which offers sweeping views of the city (talk about dreamy). But more than that it’s the vibe that’s intimate, with Tchaikovsky’s score performed live by musicians who are seated behind the audience, meanwhile the dancers appear in front of you, without the barrier of a traditional proscenium stage.
“I think if I came to this as a child,” says Jones, “I would come away with a love for classical music and dance that would stay with me into adulthood. But it isn’t just for kids. I also made this ballet for myself, as an adult, so I think it is really something families can share.” We spoke with him during the final weeks of rehearsal.
Why debut a Nutcracker now, in your seventh season?
When we founded ACB in L.A., we had just two dancers and a borrowed warehouse. It took a while before we had grown to the size where we could do a Nutcracker. That said, I’m not sure I would have done otherwise, even given the resources. George Balanchine choreographed The Nutcracker, and so did Marius Petipa. Both are excellent versions, and I always felt that if I was going to do another, it would have to add something that neither of those productions had. I wanted it to be essential, even if you had seen both of those.
How is your staging both similar and different from what audiences generally know?
The original Nutcracker is divided into two parts. In the first, a story unfolds—that of a young girl who experiences something at her parents’ Christmas party that makes a big impression on her. In traditional productions, this part is mostly made up of pantomime and acting. In the second part, the young girl has a dream based on those experiences. It is in the dream that most of the dancing happens. In our version, instead of the audience watching a young girl have a dream, I wanted them to experience the dream directly. I wanted to put them inside of it.
What’s it like inside?
Our audience will experience something like the girl does when she travels into “The Land of the Sweets.” There is a door, but I can’t tell you what is behind it. For me, growing up, Christmas was strongly associated with a door. We’d go to the door of the living room early in the morning, and behind that door were the gifts wrapped so fantastically (I come from a family of really hard-core gift-wrappers), the fireplace, a great time with my siblings and parents. Outside of that door, our parents would tease us, saying things like, “Maybe we should do all the yardwork before we go in there.” So with The Nutcracker Suite, I wanted to create something of that experience, minus the yardwork. Maybe.
Which aspects of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann Nutcracker story appealed to you that you wanted to explore?
The Hoffmann version is very much about a young girl on the cusp of adulthood who is wonderfully imaginative. She sees her imaginative world set against the rather gray world of adults, social mores, and conventions. I think in his story, Hoffmann is showing a way forward, a way to enter adulthood without losing your individuality and imagination. He certainly didn’t.
You have long been a student of dance history, researching original ballets and then restaging them. What inspired you here?
Last summer we restaged the original Sugar Plum/Cavalier pas de deux from the premier Russian production from the notation and the Balanchine version to allow the audience to compare the two (Balanchine was heavily influenced by the former). We also re-created a dance from the original production that hadn’t been seen for 100 years. Most of the versions performed today are distant relatives of that original version, so re-creating it allowed me to study the source, which in some ways really didn’t exist anywhere else.
Both Balanchine and Petipa’s versions were inspirations. Those two men’s work represent what I think is the most important lineage in ballet, the lineage that I think is the most vital to continue. Of course, the trappings of our production are different: the setting, the costumes, etc. But choreographically, though the steps are all different, I think you can see the influence. The true inspiration, however, was the dancers and the music. It is great music, and the ballet is made for the unique personalities of the dancers in the company.
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