Salt Lake City’s Municipal Ballet Co. recently presented River of Rosewater, a reimagining of The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s score was arranged by local band, Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, and the bluegrass background and prominent saxophone begged you to familiarize yourself with Tchaikovsky’s iconic work all over again.
River of Rosewater was a time capsule transporting the audience to the early 1920’s from the moment they walked in. The motif was justified throughout the performance by every detail; the costuming, the music, and the choreography. This particular performance of Municipal Ballet’s was specific to the historic McCune Mansion located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, but the limited audience capacity of 60 sold out weeks in advance. I was lucky enough to attend an open dress rehearsal at another historic space, Salt Lake’s Clubhouse. Clubhouse was once home to the Ladies’ Literary Club but is under new ownership and open and available for use. The art-deco architecture fit perfectly with the Gatsby holiday vibes Municipal Ballet originally anticipated with the Mansion site.
Sarah Longoria is the director of Municipal Ballet Co. Along with the help of her dancers, Longoria wrote and choreographed River of Rosewater. I’ve seen the past few shows of Municipal Ballet’s and I can’t help but notice and fall in love with Longoria’s themes that set her apart as a choreographer but particularly, as a ballet choreographer. Longoria prefers to dance to something other than classical music and she has deep-rooted support for live, local music. Longoria is constantly finding musicians throughout Utah to bring into her self-created spotlight. While Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is the most classical and typical “ballet” music I can think, Sarah was able to find the means to reinvent the score to meet her aesthetic.
Longoria pays attention to detail, and not just in the dance. She pays attention to every costume, every performer’s character nuances, the energy of the venue, etc. For example: I was wondering why the company did not charge for the open dress rehearsal. Come to find out, Longoria wanted the audience to be able to bring their own drinks because it was fitting to the theme and vitality of the performance (Utah’s laws won’t allow you to charge for a private event with alcohol being served). That attention to detail sets Longoria’s artistry apart.
Clara Silverhouse, danced by the always lovely Tristana Yegge, is about ten years older than we know her. The show begins with a holiday party where Clara sips a little too much absinthe and has a vivid dream full of dancers and a mystery man. Each dancer sets the tone by wearing unique and custom-made, 1920’s-inspired dresses. The choreography mixes line-dancing and the Charleston as the dancers weave in and out of formation. The performers and audience were smiling and clapping along to the music.
The dancers in Municipal Ballet Co. possess flawless technique and it’s incredible to witness the execution of their lines in such small quarters. Their movements do not shrink even though an audience member is mere inches away. As a concert audience, we have become overly familiar with viewing dance, particularly ballet, in a theatre setting. And I wouldn’t say it’s rare to see dancers in a close setting. Modern dance does not surprise its audience with the use of an obscure or forcefully unique venue, but in the ballet world, I believe Longoria is in uncharted territory, at least for Utah’s dance community.
An array of soloists then performed for Clara, each with a contemporary rendition inspired by the original work. The standout piece was the Arabian duet performed by Brian Craig Nelson and Cynthia Phillips. Smooth, almost acrobatic movement kept continuously curving and kept the energy twisting. My eyes couldn’t look away.
The magic of River of Rosewater came in Tchaikovsky’s music. Pixie and the Partygrass Boys took on the daunting task of arranging the score. They gave me a new appreciation for Tchaikovsky and how timeless his work is. The classic melodies of "Waltz of the Snowflakes" and "Trepak" were rebirthed with saxophone and distant vocal harmonies leaving me stunned. Pixie and the Partygrass Boys took a score that most dancers know all too well and made it sound brand new. I feel the same for Longoria’s story line. The Nutcracker is a story many of us know all too well. The roaring 20’s-take on Clara’s experience made the whimsical world of The Nutcracker much more relatable and, in my opinion, more enjoyable because I could connect to it. Municipal Ballet Co. did a beautiful job at reinventing a classic. I am sad that I missed the actual showing at the McCune Mansion, but if the performance went even half as well as the dress rehearsal then I would call it a charming success.
Temria Airmet is the Artistic Director of Myriad Dance Company. She received her BFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah and currently teaches with Ballet West, Tanner Dance, and Millennium Dance Complex.