The Nonconformist Nutcracker

by Rebecca Winzenried

Maybe this is the year to check out productions that put a new spin on the holiday tradition.

It's November in orchestra land, and you know what that means: Nutcracker time. Sure as an overdose of Thanksgiving turkey and Santa's arrival at the mall, the familiar strains of sugar plum fairy dances will soon start playing in our heads--not to mention from department-store speakers, elevators, radios, and of course, the concert hall. We can't even begin to estimate the number of musicians who have performed The Nutcracker in the 110 years since its premiere in St. Petersburg. In the spirit of the season, we've scouted out some alternative versions that offer a little variety for the legions of performers who get a little nutty at this time of year.

Nutcracker on Ice
It was bound to happen in Florida, where the largest expanse of ice to be found in December is at the skating rink. The Florida Orchestra has started a new tradition by presenting an iced version of The Nutcracker, starring skaters from the Russian State Ice Ballet. This will be the fourth season for the show, which is now performed at theaters in the Tampa area with the orchestra in the pit. The show started in an arena, with the 55-member orchestra on a platform stage, but the orchestra was going for better acoustics. (Creating the ice on stage involves trucking in more than 10,000 pounds of ice, in 35-pound bags.) The Nutcracker on Ice is a straightforward interpretation of the ballet, staged by a member of the Kirov Ballet. That makes The Nutcracker on Ice a direct descendant of the original ballet, which was premiered by the Kirov Ballet on December 18, 1892.


The Hard Nut

The Brooklyn Philharmonic's 2002-03 season includes December performances of choreographer Mark Morris's The Hard Nut, a joint production with the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Morris's decidedly irreverent ballet puts a contemporary spin on the Nutcracker tale, setting it at a 1970s suburban cocktail party where the kids are glued to a blaring television and revelers are eager to get into the holiday spirit(s). For all its colorful characters and whimsy, The Hard Nut hews to the music, employing the traditional Tchaikovsky score as it also explores the darker side of the original tale by E.T.A. Hoffman. The performances mark a homecoming for The Hard Nut. The ballet premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1992 and hasn't been seen in the New York area in nine years.

Klezmer Nutcracker
Is a Hanukah celebration really so different from a Christmas party? After all, both involve family gatherings, gifts and songs for the children, an air of excitement and magical happenings. The Boston-based Shirim Klezmer Orchestra--which has done gigs with the Philly Pops and the Niagara Symphony Orchestra (Ontario)--was the first to mine the comparative aspects of The Nutcracker Suite. The group's 1998 recording of The Klezmer Nutcracker played up the Russian roots of Tchaikovsky's classic in "klezmerized" movements such as the "Dance of the Latkes Queens," "Waltz of the Rugalah," and "March of the Macabees." In live performances, the music serves as backdrop for the story of The Golden Dreydl: A Klezmer Nutcracker. It follows the Hanukah adventures of a little girl named Sara, who receives a golden dreydl from a mysterious party guest. Once again this season, the klezmer orchestra will team with Ellen Kushner of Public Radio International's Sound & Spirit for performances in Providence, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Nutcracker Swing
Countless musicians have tinkered with The Nutcracker, but only Duke Ellington seems to have left a lasting imprint on the original. Filtering Tchaikovsky's music through the vibrant language of jazz, Ellington and collaborator Billy Strayhorn created a Nutcracker that reflects the brassy sounds and jangling rhythms of 20th-century America, and that itself has been used as the basis of a ballet, Harlem Nutcracker by Donald Byrd. A Live from Lincoln Center joint performance of the New York Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra last December, called "Nutcracker Swing," alternated Tchaikovsky's traditional symphonic movements with Ellington versions. Compare and contrast as "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" becomes "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Waltz of the Flowers" morphs into "Dance of the Floreadores." Check local PBS listings for possible repeats of the program that originally aired in December 2001. Or look for orchestral arrangements of the Ellington Nutcracker that have begun popping up around the country.

A Nutty Nutcracker
Lastly, because orchestras and dance companies should be allowed to blow off some steam by the end of another holiday Nutcracker run, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the Alabama Symphony will participate in single-evening performances of "Nutty Nutrackers." The ballet parodies come at the end of regular Nutcracker performances (with BalletMet in Columbus and the Alabama Ballet in Birmingham). An element of surprise is part of the fun, but plans are afoot in Columbus to incorporate local celebrities and sports figures into the story line, such as the local soccer team in a "choreographed" ball-passing routine and a weatherman offering the forecast. We're guessing he'll predict snow.

Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.