I know what you are thinking. Great, yet another version of the Nutcracker at Christmas. Just what we need. Well, this one IS just the one we need.
While the more traditional versions are taking up space that would otherwise be used for a retread of “A Christmas Carol,” Michelle Dorrance and her dancers have brought to the Joyce a fun, whimsical version of the Tchaikovsky classic by way of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The result is a dance performance that breathes new life (and fun) into what has become tradition at best and cliché at worst.
It is tempting to call this satire, as it deflates some of the pomposity that the piece has developed over the decades – for example casting Leonard Sandoval as Clara (and he’s quite good in the role). But satire implies a certain mean-spirited feel that this production just doesn’t have. The artists are playing with the Nutcracker rather than attacking it, and in so doing, they have found new dimensions and angles that keep the audience laughing and applauding.
Ellington and Strayhorn’s jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky sets up the transition from classical ballet to tap perfectly. The two uniquely American forms go seamlessly together.
The cast is large, and the entire piece runs about 30 minutes. That results in constant motion, and the audience barely has time to finish absorbing one stunning routine before the next begins. The rat king, the nutcracker, and the sugar plum fairies (dubbed Sugar Rum Cherry and the Sugar Rum Blossoms ) are all there. While the audience will benefit from some knowledge of the original, the piece is perfectly accessible to anyone new to the story. The one quibble I have is the shortening of the piece from the original does create jumps in the story line that make it feel a bit jagged here and there.
I have seen Dorrance Dance before (and adored the work), but the performances opening night were exceptional even by the company’s usual high standards. Josette Wiggan-Freund doubles as Clara’s Mother and the Sugar Rum Cherry, and she is simply awe-inspiring. Hannah Heller as the Rat King was no less amazing (and the collaborated with Michelle Dorrance in choreographing the show). Joseph Wiggan plays both Clara’s Father and Her Cavalier. He has the ability to jump up and simply not come down – as if he has a note excusing him from the law of gravity signed by Isaac Newtown.
What made the production, however, was not the stand-out performances of a single dancer but the intense energy and amazing training that the entire cast brought to the stage. Tap doesn’t get the respect it deserves most of the time, but there are enough excellent hoofers on the Joyce stage that people will stop and watch in awe.
Of course, 30 minutes does not an evening of dance make, so the Dorrance crew are presenting three programs during their three-week run, each of which ends with the “Nutcracker.” As a prelude opening night, a fearsome foursome (Dorrance, Heller and Wiggan-Freund joined by Melinda Sullivan, who more than held her own in that company and choreographed it with them) performed “All Good Things Come to an End.”
The premise is simple. All the theaters have burned, and there are only four performers left in the world, and they have preserved some basic stories for humanity: Cain and Abel, and the Myth of the American Dream to cite but two examples. The music of Artie Shaw and Fats Waller give us the same swing music and stride piano sense of time for which tap seems to have a natural affinity. The movements within the piece are short, but they are woven together with a sense of artistry. As a result, the dancers show off their talents alone and together. The piece evokes more than a few laughs from the audience and outright cheering in a couple more.
The Nutcracker is the main course here, as per the advertising, but the appetizers are more than worthy in their own right.
Running time: 90 minutes including a 15-minute intermission
The Nutcracker is playing at the Joyce Theater, 175 8th Avenue, New York City, through January 5, 2020. For more information regarding the programs and for tickets, visit the Joyce Theater website.