I really don’t like the Nutcracker. To my relief, this wasn’t the Nutcracker, but It’s Not Cracker by NOW-ID, December 16 & 17 at UMOCA. With choreography by Charlotte Boye-Christensen, performances by the Bboy Federation, Brad Beakes, Tara McArthur, and Gary Vlasic, and lighting by Cole Adams, It’s Not Cracker was a collage that commented on, and ultimately transcended, the framework of the iconic holiday ballet.
The evening’s performance began with the snow scene, Tchaikovsky’s triumphant music from between the first half of the Nutcracker - the party scene, and the second half - in the land of sweets. Any 12-year-old aspiring ballerina who spent more than one year performing as a party scene girl (raises hand) knows that snow is when the show actually begins. It’s the moment when we get to leave the mundane world of sibling rivalry and tipsy parents to experience a magical other realm.
Performer Tara McArthur took us there. She entered from a door on the left side of a two-story painting of the Salt Lake Temple, an existing installation from UMOCA’s current exhibition, taking a quick sprint around the circumference of the stage. On her second sprint, Brad Beakes joined.
Their side-by-side run morphed into a duet. Deftly weaving lifts, abrupt beginnings and endings, and complex floorwork, these two moved like a flurry of snowflakes. Their adept performance highlighted the flux between starkly angled arm gestures and circular, fluid weight shifts characteristic of choreographer Boye-Christensen’s movement aesthetic. McArthur’s nuanced interpretation of the steps made the dance sing.
An aptly matched duo, I was intrigued during McArthur and Beakes’ brief side-by-side unison phrases, momentary punctuations to their run-on whirling, lifting, falling sentence. I expected Beakes to evolve into McArthur’s Nutcracker Prince, but as the work unfolded, I instead saw her little brother, Fritz. Though a skilled partner, Beakes was at his best when competing for a moment in Clara’s spotlight.
It took me a while to place myself within the score. Once I realized where we were, I sort of fell into Tchaikovsky’s falling snow. We didn’t stay at snow for long, with DJ Artemis re-mixing the iconic score, we went in and out of sections of the Nutcracker, and other musical genres. At the close of this specific scene, performers from the Bboy Federation sprinted onto the stage as the music shifted. McArthur and Beakes noticed their entry, slowly fading off stage as the Bboy Federation began to dance.
Throughout the work, this kind of integration of multiple styles was evidenced. The Bboy Federation would perform break-out solos, overlapping with Beakes and McArthur’s ongoing duet. To me, the integration of these two different kinds of performers allowed the performers to speak for themselves, in their own aesthetic experiences, something that the original ballet could be rightly criticized for failing to do.
For example, during the Arabian music, six members of the Bboy Federation and Brad knelt on stage in two columns, facing inward. In the center, each artist took a turn improvising with their most specific tricks. This section, in other Nutcrackers that I have seen, is usually a celebration of the female dancer’s flexibility and sexuality, while she undertakes a series of acrobatic tricks in a skimpy, Orientalized Jasmine/Aladdin costume. To see this music re-narrated sans the racialized tropes, by performers speaking in their own voices, provided a more complex understanding of the musical score. Arabian transfigures into something mournful and struggling, while performers grapple with gravity in spins and headstands, and with the weight of the space in their upside-down freezes.
The performer who really ran the show was Gary Vlasic. While attendees mingled and drank very mulled wine before show (raises hand), Vlasic lay on an iron bed frame positioned between bar and makeshift stage. He had his face covered by a hat, a black-painted nutcracker standing by his side. Floating overhead was an upside-down Christmas tree, also painted black.
Vlasic’s Drosselmeyer was reminiscent of the creepy things about the character in the original, (Drosselmeyer is an uncle-y character who showers one child with affection, but not her sibling, comes into her bedroom, and takes her to a place called the land of sweets - ummmm….), but Vlasic turns these creepy things into something else. He listened to his nutcracker, whispered in its ear, and together they hatched a plan. As the dance unfolded, Vlasic and his nutcracker slowly migrated from bedframe to a black plastic Louis chair center stage. When the nutcracker told Vlasic to join McArthur and Beake’s duet, he began to lead the two towards the edge of the stage, pushing on Beakes’ arm while Beakes carried McArthur on his shoulder. The piece culminated when McArthur reached high overhead, sending a glass circle swirling, shimmering circles of light flying around the room.
It’s Not Cracker wasn’t the Nutcracker. I was swept up with the dance in a way that maybe others, who still find the Nutcracker a magical part of their holiday season, experience. I wondered if the experience was the same for those not as intimately familiar with the original score and plot? A cursory investigation (I asked my non-dancer husband) revealed that some of the nuanced comment on the original which I saw, he did not. However, an experience he did have, and since that’s what NOW-ID sought to provide, it was indeed holiday magic.
Liz Ivkovich is the editor of the print edition of loveDANCEmore. She is putting her MFA in dance (Utah ‘16) to work for the University of Utah’s Sustainability Office and Global Change & Sustainability Center.