Dance Review American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) The Nutcracker Suite
by Phillip McAbee
December 10, 2017, 5:00 PM
ACB Performance Space
700 S. Flower Street, Suite 3200
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Amazing! Amazing! Amazing!
Go online now @ https://www.acbdances.com/ and purchase tickets for ACB’s Nutcracker before the performances are sold out. The remaining performance dates are December 22, 23!
The Nutcracker Ballet premiered in Russia at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on Sunday, December 18, 1892. The music was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (original title) is based on a E.T.A. Hoffmann story written in the late 1800s. If you are not familiar with the original story, let’s get you caught up.
It’s Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Marie (not Clara), seven, and her brother, Fritz, eight, sit outside the parlor speculating about what kind of presents their inventor godfather, Drosselmeier (ghoulish godfather), has made for them. After a long wait, the children are invited into the living room to receive their Christmas gifts, which includes a mechanized dollhouse filled with animatronic figurines. Move over FAO Schwarz (Oops! Toys “R” Us closed down FAO in 2015, but it will reportedly reopen in 2018. but I digress. Back to the Christmas Eve party….)
The children soon become bored with the dollhouse. Marie notices a nutcracker — a device shaped in the form of a soldier. She inquires of her father, “To whom does this Nutcracker belong?” Mr. Stahlbaum informs her that the nutcracker belongs to all of the children. Dear reader, let’s take a step back. Hmm…Two kids to share one wooden nut-cracking toy. What could possibly go wrong (You’ll Shoot Your Eyes Out)?
Marie is appointed special caregiver because of her demonstrated affinity towards the nutcracker doll. The kids pass the nutcracker among themselves cracking nuts. Then it happens. Fritz attempts to crack a large nut with the nutcracker, and it’s a total fail. The nutcracker’s zygomatic process is broken (jaw bone). Marie, upset, makes everything better by bandaging the nutcracker with a ribbon from her dress.
It is bed time. The children put their Christmas gifts away in the special wooden anwar where they keep their toys. The parents go up to bed, but Marie begs her parents to allow her to stay with her imaginary new BFF, the nutcracker, a while longer. Permission is granted. Marie puts him to bed and tells him that her godfather Drosselmeier will fix his jaw without ACA money. Nutcracker is happy to hear that he has no copay. His face lights up with joy , “It’s alive!” Marie is not comfortable with her new BFF coming to life, but she decides it was just a figment of her imagination.
The grandfather clock in the living room begins to chime. Marie hallucinates seeing Drosselmeier sitting on top of of the chiming clock, preventing it from striking midnight. Mice begin to infest the room — coming out from beneath the floorboards. Among these is a seven-headed Mouse King. The Nutcracker (now I shall capitalize his “name”) comes to life along with the other toys in the cabinet. A battle royale ensues between the mice, led by the Mouse King, and the dolls, led by the Nutcracker. The source of the conflict: who will win Marie’s ribbon. The Mouse King and his troops overwhelm the dolls. Seeing the defeated nutcracker being taken prisoner, Marie takes off her slipper and throws it at the Mouse King. She then faints into the toy cabinet glass door, cutting her arm badly.
The next day, Marie relays to her parents the events of the previous night. They attribute her hallucinations to a fever induced by her infected cut from the broken glass.
Drosselmeier returns with the Nutcracker, whose jaw has been fixed. He tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat and Madam Mouserinks (AKA the Queen of the Mice) and explains how nutcrackers came to be and why they look the way they do. Once upon a time, the Mouse Queen tricks Princess Pirlipat’s mother into allowing her and her mouse children to eat the fat that was supposed to go into the sausage that was prepared for the King’s dinner that evening. The King, angry about his spoiled supper and his upset wife, orders his court inventor, whose name happens to be Drosselmeier, to create traps for the Mouse Queen and her children.
When her children are killed in the traps, the Mouse Queen swears vengeance on Princess Pirlipat. The Queen tries to protect her daughter by surrounding them with cats. Nurses are assigned to stroke the cats continuously to keep them awake and vigilant. But when the nurses inevitably fall asleep, the Mouse Queen sneaks in and magically turns Pirlipat ugly, giving her a huge head, a wide grinning mouth, and a cottony beard like a nutcracker. The King blames Drosselmeier for his daughter’s fate and gives him four weeks to find a cure. When Drosselmeier fails to come up with a cure, he seeks out his friend, the court astrologer.
And this story goes on and on and on. Blah blah blah… So what does the historical story of Nutcracker have to do with ACB’s version of The Nutcracker? Absolutely nothing, and this is precisely why ACB’s presentation of The Nutcracker is a unexpected, playful, and immersive experience.
Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, good dance performances must fulfill the following needs: good choreography, strong set design, beautiful music, gorgeous costumes, displayed all the above ingredients at their December 10 performance — and with moxie. I cannot remember when I have enjoyed myself so thoroughly at a dance performance. Lincoln Jones put together a tightly organized, bare bones choreography that captures the joy of children opening gifts on Christmas morning. Mr. Jones presented a tasting menu of exquisite dances accompanied by James and Kathy McMillan’s thoughtful arrangement of Tchaikovsky selections from the Nutcracker score. As I watched the performance, I felt myself spontaneously laughing and smiling as each intermezzo was served up. Jones’ dance service consisted of eleven divertissements danced with focus and purpose. In my experience, The Nutcracker has always been about sets, costumes, makeup. The dancing seems to be not the last consideration, but also definitely not the primary one. In ACB’s Nutcracker performance, the corps de ballet dancing was sharp physical, clean, and energetic.
Jones’s Nutcracker consisted of the following sections:
Waltz of the Snowflakes
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Waltz of the Flowers
Grande Pas de Deux
I would love to provide the rundown on each of these, but I do not want to spoil such an amazing evening of dance theater for those who plan to go see the performance. Everything about the presentation, which includes the way the audience was moved into the space, created a sense of wonder and anticipation. The standouts for me were Rochelle Chang and Ian Schwaner in the Grand Pas De Deux and Sugar Plum Fairy. Chang is a fearless dancer (my favorite type of dancer) with beautiful lines, clear and soft épaulement, and brilliant pointe work. Mother Ginger performed beautifully by Amy Helfrich (Mother Ginger) and Lily McCord (Little Ginger) illustrated Jones’s ability to choreograph pure classical ballet without the Balanchine over-exaggerated gestures of the hands and extended neoclassical ballet positions. Keep an eye out for Lily McCord (Little Ginger), remember the name. She is a young dancer dancing beyond her age! Another high point was Cierra Floods’ dancing in the divertissement Coffee with Ian Schwaner. Coffee is an interpretation of the classic Nutcracker Arabian dance. Floods and Schwaner performed it with stateliness and dignity. The Hot Chocolate divertissement was nicely danced by Elise Filo with Caroline Atwell, Sarah Foley, Angela Ridoff, and Kristen Toher. Though the attack was there, I sensed that the dance needed a dash more Español. Bravo to Max Jezek (production designer), Pablo Santiago (lighting designer), Lincoln Jones (artistic director), Theresa Farrell (executive director), Ruoxuan Li (costume designer), and the entire production crew for a job well done. Amazing! I loved it! This review will be updated in the New Year.
One final thing: I imagine many ballet companies across America derive between forty percent and fifty percent of their annual income from their respective Nutcracker productions! Please support local dance companies in Los Angeles.
Phillip McAbee holds an MA in dance from UCLA; and he is the founder of the Echo Park Dance History Festival. Mr. McAbee studied dance with Alfredo Corvino, Mary Anthony, and Mary Price. He presently teaches adult ballet classes in Los Angeles, California, writes, and works as an instructional design consultant. His memoir The Four Little Ones is available on iOS and Kindle.