Nutcracker

Dr. Ben Neal, of the Los Alamos Children's Clinic, as Mother Ginger in Nutcracker on "The Hill"; Paulo T. Photography

Even by the standard of ballet plots The Nutcracker comes up short. As given at its premiere, at St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre in 1892, its dramatic trajectory, derived from a weird children’s story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, added up to little more than this: Marie (often identified as Clara in English-speaking lands) receives a Nutcracker at her family’s Christmas party; it gets broken as a result of horseplay; after the family goes to bed, it kills the Mouse King in a battle; and then the Nutcracker (transformed into a prince), whisks Marie/Clara off to the magical realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where they are entertained by a divertissement that includes dances in the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian styles. One early critic got it about right when he complained, “In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.”

It has accordingly become a Rorschach test among ballets, with choreographers imposing an astonishing variety of interpretations and adaptations on its skeleton scenario. Usually the original score, by Tchaikovsky, is employed either selectively or in toto, and that’s all for the good; right from the outset, it was singled out as the best thing about the ballet. But the specifics of the plot and characters have become pretty much up for grabs. George Balanchine’s 1954 staging for New York City Ballet remains the classic yardstick, at least in our country, but very different visions have arrived in recent decades via such choreographers as Matthew Bourne (a hunky stud spirits Clara away from her sad existence in an orphanage), Graeme Murphy (an aged ballerina in a retirement home, Clara encounters memories but no magic, and then she dies), and Maurice Béjart (a presumably autobiographical version in which the relationship between a boy and his mother moves into uncomfortable territory). These scenarios are not necessarily worse, and may be better, than what Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov had to work with.

It was hard to resist checking out a new take titled Nutcracker on “The Hill,” which was presented in three performances on Dec. 4, 5, and 6, by Dance Arts Los Alamos (DALA). “The Hill” — for the benefit of newcomers — was (and remains today) the sweepingly unspecific nickname for the town in the mountains northwest of Santa Fe at which was developed the atomic bomb during the high-stakes time of the Manhattan Project. Let us quote from the organization’s press release: “The story will take place in Los Alamos in 1944, seven and a half months preceding the Trinity Test. Opening with a Christmas party hosted by the Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer and Military Project Commander General Leslie Groves, the ballet will follow an attempt to steal sensitive information concerning the project. It will then be up to Oppie, Gwen (Groves’ daughter), and the Nutcracker Prince to find the Spy and secure the Classified Information before it’s too late.”

I was worried. It crossed my mind that instead of Balanchine’s famous Christmas tree, which evokes gasps when it escalates to a height of 40 feet, the festivities might instead culminate in the shadows of a mushroom cloud. But no; the physicists have mostly set their work aside — a few can’t resist jotting equations on a blackboard — and the most overt reference to radioactive transformation comes in the form of an ensemble of glow-in-the-dark rats.

Duane Smith Auditorium of Los Alamos High School, which seats a thousand, was packed to the gills at the final performance, and everybody had a grand time, including me. Director and chor-eographer Jonathan Guise (who was assisted in the choreography by several colleagues) developed the production with input from the Los Alamos Historical Society, and it accordingly opened with a short video that set the scene of Los Alamos in 1944. The ballet proper began with a swing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s overture. The recorded music for the afternoon mixed Tchaikovsky’s original score with Nutcracker arrangements (including those of Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn) and quite a few popular morsels more-or-less of the Manhattan Project era. During the Christmas party scene, for example, guests danced to such numbers as “Sleigh Ride,” during which an Atomic City Transit bus crossed the stage, and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” spotlighting three dancers dressed in red, white, and blue. The gathering unrolled in a set that fancifully suggested the main hall of the Fuller Lodge, once part of the Los Alamos Ranch School (which was displaced by the Manhattan Project) and today an arts center about a mile from where the performance took place. The impressive décor filled the whole stage; it was designed and painted with trompe l’oeil three-dimensional perspective by Robi Mulford. (She also appeared onstage in the role of Dorothy McKibbin, the gatekeeper who controlled access to “The Hill” from her Santa Fe office at 109 E. Palace Ave.) In the second act, this gave way to a candy-bedecked fairyland, also colorful and detailed, though not strictly drawn from history.

This was a community production, and the dancers represented various age groups and levels of expertise to be found among the participants in the classes and programs of DALA. Nonetheless, a professional ballet dancer was imported to appear in the important second-act role of the Cavalier: Bryan Jenkins, who has been associated with Houston Ballet, BalletMet (in Columbus), and Ballet Florida. One appreciated the refined elegance he provided, most impressively in the solos and pas de deux near the piece’s conclusion. In the duets, he was joined by Melina Burnside, an ingratiating Sugar Plum Fairy and an example of the polish to which DALA participants might aspire.

The ongoing concept of pursuing the Spy, who Guise himself portrayed with vaudevillian good humor, was a worthy stab at providing ballast for The Nutcracker’s air-headed plot. Many of the attendees at the Christmas party were identified in the program as historical figures who were connected to the Manhattan Project, including Enrico Fermi, James Chadwick, and Norris Bradbury. The references seemed sometimes obscure onstage, but many in the audience were nevertheless tuned in to these impersonations. At the show’s end a video cleverly identified everyone.

I believe I counted 133 dancers during the curtain calls. Let it suffice to say that everyone onstage exuded commitment as well as technical capability. The gentleman seated next to me, who was two years old, was particularly captivated by a delegation of singers-dancers-drummers from the neighboring San Ildefonso Pueblo, who proved magnetic in a buffalo dance. I shared his gusto. The show provided a revolving door of opportunities for discrete ensembles of dancers to strut their stuff. It was hard to play favorites, but afterwards my mind kept returning to the dance of the Baby Mice. Their long grey tails and quivering paws had me convinced that these must be actual rodents, although I have it on firm authority that they were really six little girls in costumes. In Nutcracker on “The Hill,” DALA took a thrice-familiar classic and made it specific to its place in an enterprise that oozed ambition, enthusiasm, inclusion, and integrity. This was a production of the people, by the people, and for the people, which is just what a community-arts endeavor should strive for.


Thanks for the memories

Elsewhere in the news, on Dec. 1, violinist Gil Shaham paid a repeat visit to the Lensic Performing Arts Center through the graces of Performance Santa Fe. When I say “repeat visit,” I don’t mean just that he occupied the same stage he did four years ago; he performed practically the same program. On both occasions, he offered unaccompanied works by Bach. In November 2011, he played the D-minor Partita, C-major Sonata, and E-major Partita. This December, he played the same three, although he added a fourth piece, the A-minor Sonata, to launch the program. All of these are masterworks that bear repeated listening, and I doubt that any of us unfailingly remember the minutiae of his earlier interpretation. Still, one might have preferred that this exemplary violinist show a different angle of his artistry.

His performance of the A-minor Sonata was not quite up to the standard he reached in the ensuing three items. One was almost constantly aware of the work’s immense difficulties. Shaham finessed them, to be sure, but the second-movement Fuga displayed roughness that even stretched to ragged bits here and there, and in the ensuing Andante the repeated bass-line of eighth-notes was plodding and unevenly phrased. One feared he was having an “off” evening, but he found his sea legs for the rest of the program. The D-minor Partita was notable for a highly charged rendition of the Sarabande, sparkling delivery in the Giga, and a firm dramatic sense overall. The opening movement of the C-major Sonata also has a repeated-note bass-line; this time, though, he separated their iterations with finer rhythmic equality, and he shaded his timbre in some of those repeated notes such that their attacks almost resembled pizzicatos, though they were entirely bowed. Shaham barreled through the Sonata’s Fuga like the Wabash Cannonball. He showed aplomb even during an anxious several seconds where things sounded on the point of derailing, in the measures just before the four-voiced exposition of the inverted subject gives way to a rhapsodic episode in unharmonized eighth-notes. The most ravishing playing of the recital arrived with the next movement, a Largo in which Shaham’s nuances of tonal beauty reminded listeners of his very special abilities. The final movement was energetic indeed — but Bach did mark it Allegro assai (“very fast”) and Shaham did not take that indication halfheartedly. The E-major Partita, which concluded the recital,  is the most festive piece in Bach’s unaccompanied violin repertoire. Shaham brought a jolly touch of the hoedown to the opening Preludio, ingratiating charm to the Gavotte en Rondeau, and lustiness to the bustling Bourrée. ◀