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Matthew Bourne's 'Nutcracker!'

Earth to Planet Nutcracker

by Jeff Kuo

December 21, 2004 -- Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood, Los Angeles

For those who fail to connect the domesticity, innocence, and “family values” of a “Nutcracker” Christmas with the actuality of avaricious tykes, Toys-R-Us combat zones, and tension filled family gatherings, Matthew Bourne’s “Nutcracker!” is just the reality check for you.

In a traditional “Nutcracker's” sanitized Victorian scenario, both adults and children inhabit a world of pre-lapsarian innocence, bathed in the glow of an archetypal Christmas community of nurturing, charity and “family values.” Traditional productions based upon Ivanov and Balanchine transform death, disease, and destitution into toy games and saccharine choreography while displacing potentially erotic elements of the story onto the plane of pure balletic classicism.

Bourne does away with all that kind of Christmas. Bourne, often at his most brilliant at re-working traditional ballet librettos (e.g. “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella,” and “The Car Man” -- all seen in Los Angeles within recent years), delivers no less with “Nutcracker!” Instead of the cozy Victorian home, Bourne gives us a veritable Dickensian Third Reich where the ballet’s only family embodies not holiday charity but avarice and exploitation. Instead of the bourgeois domesticity of the Stahlbaums, Clara is an inmate of Dr. Dross’ Orphanage for Waifs and Strays, a kind of Dotheboys Hall run by Dr. Dross (Scott Ambler as an SS commandant Wackford Squeers) and the Matron, His Wife, (Annabelle Dalling as a nightmarish combination of Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ Baby Jane). These symbolic inversions are only a starting point for Bourne.

As the story begins, the orphans are preparing for the holiday visit of the Orphanage’s Governors. The entire Orphanage scene is in the tradition of the backstage musical (“let’s put on a show”) where the feature production is a kind of gala performance for the Orphanage’s Governors. In this command performance of homely orphans, the Dross children, Sugar (the statuesque Michela Meazza) and Fritz (Neil Penlington), are the principal dancers for whom the orphans merely serve as an anonymous corps. However, the Matron and Dr. Dross get their own star variations, a Cruella de Vil number for the Matron and a barbells and hoops, Hitler-Jugend one for Dross. However, all too soon, the performance is over and the Governors depart. Dross and his wife drop their festive masks and soon the toys and holiday decorations are rounded up and taken away including Clara’s beloved Nutcracker Doll.

Perhaps, Bourne is commenting on the fictive, performative nature of Christmas – that just as the holiday season passes, the good behavior and kindness of the season also soon passes. Moreover, by making the Dross family the principal dancers of the orphanage’s show and invoking the choreographic conventions of the set piece ballet (the stationary corps looking on the principals at center stage, etc), Bourne seems to be making a bolder statement. I wonder if there is a critique of the staged ritual intrinsic to the balletic form itself – a sense that ballet itself functions, like the orphanage’s gala, to perform a pleasing if all too transient fiction.

Nighttime at the Orphanage brings the Nutcracker Doll to life as a somewhat creepy manikin. Instead of the battle of mice and toy soldiers, Bourne gives us the revolt of the orphans who bundle the whole Dross family from the stage. Soon the Nutcracker transforms from a life sized puppet into the object of young Clara’s daytime infatuation, a fellow orphan but now a pumped up, young Adonis in suspenders – a muscle god, bare-chested, strapping, and studly.

Instead of the traditional choreography’s usual Nutcracker Prince as a chaste, danseur noble, Bourne’s version is the dancer as Mr. Universe, a champion body builder whose artistic muscle poses pay homage to the 1930s and 1940s Golden Age of Body Building. The transformation pas de deux refers not to Petipa, Ivanov, and the Imperial Russian Theatres, but to Charles Atlas, Steve Reeves, Johnny Weismuller, and Venice “Muscle” Beach. Not only does the ballet reject such familiar models of balletic masculine deportment as Prince Desiree and Siegfried, Bourne’s multiplication of the Prince’s studly muffins into a corps of six muscle hunks alludes to the manly iconography of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.

In the next section, Bourne continues to re-work cultural material changing the Waltz of the Snowflakes from a winter ballet blanc into an ice skating wonderland. Instead of waltzing snowflakes, his Frozen Lake scene abounds with references to “Les Patineurs,” Peggy Fleming, and Sonja Henie Hollywood ice revues. The Dross children re-appear as Princess Sugar and Prince Bon-Bon (Fritz), who scheme to romance the Nutcracker away from Clara, and as the curtain falls, the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar are the stars of their own ice follies while the abandoned Clara retreats to an enormous pillow at the back of the stage.

After a quick “Mini-Extreme Makeover” with the help of obliging Cupids (Mami Tomotani and Lee Smikle), Clara sheds her drab, formless orphan dress for a bright blue, summer number with polka dots and proceeds to Sweetieland in search for her love.

Jaded “Nutcracker” veterans in the audience sometimes express impatience (or dread) at having to sit through the narrative sections of the ballet (Act I) in order to get to the more colorful divertissements of Act II. Not so with Bourne. Here, the Act II divertissements create suspense by holding up the story of Clara’s quest for the Nutcracker.  Will she get into Sweetieland in time to prevent the marriage of the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar?  If anything, the divertissements themselves try our patience, but they are worth the trouble. To get past the Humbug Bouncer, Clara tries to sneak in with the wedding guests whose variations are humorous re-settings of the traditional Act II Spanish, Arabian, Marzipans, and Trepaks. No mantillas or faux flamenco costumes for the Liquorice Allsorts but plenty of brill cream and butt slapping. The Allsorts were Richard Winsor, Samuel Archer, and Vicky Evans.

Instead of Arabian as an apple fresh Lolita in a halter top and harem trousers, the Knickerbocker Glory (Paulo Kadow) is an aging, leering libertine, puffing away at a cigarette holder (doubtless phallic), whose pelvic actions over the floor seem to refer back to the famous fetish finale of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faune.” The choreography for the Marshmallow Girls, ultra-moddish ditzy debs resembling clipped poodles in fluffy pink, makes more sense of the Chinese Tea score than the usual idiotically bobbing mandarins (though whether the vacuous female socialite is any more “politically correct” than the buck toothed Chinaman remains an open question). Bounding madly about like monkeys in a mosh pit, the Gobstoppers, quite frankly, have me stumped, but I noticed that they were popular with a lot of the children in the audience.

Sweetieland must simply be seen to be believed. Presided over by King Sherbert and Queen Candy (the transformed Dr. Dross and the Matron), Sweetieland evokes the Roald Dahl world of Willy Wonka as well as the colorfully campy world of the 1960s Batman t.v. show. Neither Burgess Meredith’s Penguin nor Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman would feel out of place in this sucrose-charged candy land. But for all the reigning royalty’s mugging and preening, from the enormous Cesar Romero Joker lips that frame the entrance to Sweetieland to the candy characters, the predominant impression of Sweetieland is its free floating orality.

At one time or another (but mostly continuously) Sweetieland’s inhabitants indulge in licking, kissing, tasting, mouthing, lapping, slurping, puckering, and other barely sublimated orally erotic behaviors. Sugar and Nutcracker taste each other, King Sherbert and Queen Candy taste the Nutcracker, the Knickerbocker Glory tastes Clara, the Gobstoppers taste the Marshmallow Girls, everybody tastes everybody else and themselves to boot – in Bourne’s hands, the Waltz of the Flowers becomes more or less a giant, rollicking, sugar shack, lip smacking orgy. The wedding cake sequence may have been inspired by "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade," and Busby Berkeley formalism, but I doubt Sweetieland's swinging dancers would have passed the Hays Code. Who needs Arabian Coffee’s coy slinkiness when you can have eight pole dancers grinding merrily atop an enormous cake? And, I don't know what that "move" is called that the Knickerbocker Glory is doing – but I suspect it's the same as the reason why vets recommend spaying cats.

Clara emerges from behind the Wedding Cake and briefly distracts the Nutcracker but is hustled out of Sweetieland by the Humbug Bouncer. The wedding of the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar, set to Tchaikovsky’s Grand (“Sugar Plum”) pas de deux, is showy and pretty in a sweet, Hallmark Cards kind of way, but I think it’s main purpose is to show that Bourne isn’t subverting ballet tradition at every moment. He can choreograph within expected norms when he wants to and the Nutcracker/Sugar pas de deux should satisfy anybody’s need for a beautiful if scarcely innovative duet. Yet, even with the Wedding pas de deux’s overt conventionality, the sense that the “wrong” girl has gotten the guy flies in the face of inherited ballet wisdom which prescribes that the ballerina with the most beautiful variations deserves her Prince (and certainly not the dancer who only dances a few character variations). But Christmas on Planet Bourne is not the same as Christmas on Planet Nutcracker. Fortunately for those weak hearted who insist on a happy ending at Christmastime, the evening ends with Clara’s awakening and eventual escape from the orphanage with the boy who is the real life model for the Nutcracker.

“Nutcracker!” offers not just rehashed Petipa and Ivanov and character dances we’ve only seen about a billion times already, but a fundamental choreographic re-orientation with inspiration stemming from re-worked mass media products such as the physical culture of Golden Age Body Building, 20th Century Fox ice revues, and Warner Brothers musicals. I wonder if the re-circulation of classic cinematic imagery is trendy now as other works viewed recently in Los Angeles also participate in this appropriation of Hollywood – both winners (e.g. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carnival of the Animals”) and duds (e.g. Peter Martins’ “Thou Swell”).

Unlike Balanchine’s version, Bourne’s “Nutcracker!” is not obviously destined to be a holiday classic though it should be sore balm for audiences hardened by simply too many conventional “Nutcracker” seasons. To be sure, other choreographers have used non-traditional materials (Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker" etc) but few, I believe, have so cleverly re-worked the libretto across the grain of the original.  Bourne's "Nutcracker!" stands not so much in an alternative relationship to the conventional "Nutcracker" as a contestatory one (a sort of "Nutcracker" anti-masque).

On Tuesday, Clara was danced by Etta Murfitt whose vulnerability contrasted with the hard-edged glamour of Michela Meazza’s Sugar. Alan Vincent did his beefcake best as the Nutcracker while Scott Ambler and Annabelle Dalling towered above the company as Dross/King Sherbert and the Matron/Queen Candy. Neil Penlington’s Fritz/Prince Bon-Bon was menacing indeed. The production’s expressionistic designs were by Anthony Ward with lighting by Howard Harrison and sound by Paul Groothius. Recorded music featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Brett Morris.

For those interested in more, Matthew Bourne's "Nutcracker!" has its own website with images, video clips, and an interview with the choreographer.  Click here.


Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.


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