writers on dancing


Characters and Cartoons:
A Disagreeable "Nutcracker"

Matthew Bourne's "Nutcracker!"
[presented by CalPerformances]
Zellerbach Hall
San Francisco, California
November 26, 2004

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano

Despite touches of theatrical genius, the American premiere of Matthew Bourne’s “Nutcracker!” (originally choreographed in 1991, and recently revised) turned out to be a mostly disagreeable affair. Mr. Bourne has created some rather good theatrical adaptation of ballet classics; “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella” come to mind. For the first he created a slightly oafish, but eminently believable prince starved for love—wherever he finds it. In the second, you identified with the conflicts and anguish of the heroine, caught between a family from hell and the hell of London’s Blitz. Less successful, but on the overall still more so than this “Nutcracker!” was Mr. Bourne’s rethinking of “Carmen” for his garage culture “Car Man.”

Mr. Bourne attacked the traditional “Nutcracker’s” most egregious weakness, the lack of coherent narrative, with more gusto than success. He set the first act in a Caligari-like orphanage and conceived of the second as Clara’s (Kerry Biggin) dream. (Helgi Tomasson purportedy uses the strategy for his new “Nutcracker” to premiere on December 17). Given the thrust of Mr. Bourne’s particular narrative—the Sugar Plum Fairy steals the Prince from the heroine—Clara still ends up with the beefcake.

But surprises in drama—and the idea is as old as Aristotle—work best if they are prepared for. Mr. Bourne does nothing of the sort. He just drops the ending on the audience like a fiat from a deus ex machina. It may give us a final laugh and a Hollywood ending, but dramatically it felt like cheating.

Much of the first act simply was dull even though this “Nutcracker!” started promisingly. During the overture—throughout Mr. Bourne takes many, though dramatically defensible liberties with the score—orphans shot out in front of the curtain as if coming off a conveyor belt. Looking like released prisoners; they blinked at the light, rearranged their dumpy frocks and shyly winked at the audience. It was a touch of magic theater, funny, poetic and individualized, maybe the work’s best moment.

Once the curtain opened, Mr. Bourne couldn’t sustain this delicious mix of pathos and humor. Anthony Ward’s setting was not so much a Dickensian hovel as a bleak, cracked cement-wall modern institution. Here the orphans were sent through their paces, i.e. dances, by Dr. and Mrs. Dross (James Leece and Annabelle Dalling)) for the enjoyment of gift-bringing patrons. These parents and their bratty children Fritz (Neil Penlington) and Sugar (Michela Meazza) were cartoon figures. Two-dimensional, even dressed (by Ward) in black and white, every gesture was exaggerated and could have popped out of Krazy Kat cartoons. But such they were, they were dramatically viable.

The orphans, however, were neither realistic—like the visitors from the outside—nor like the Dross caricatures. They hovered between the two. At one moment, pitifully abused they clung on to each other, the other they kicked their legs like bugs on their backs or gesticulated wildly like mechanical dolls. Mr. Bourne gave them even a vaudevillian touch with “what can I do” shrugs at the audience. In the program each of the 16 orphans had a name, and there were glances at individuality—Clara kindly sharing a doll, a clumsy boy always missing his place in line—but Mr. Bourne did not include enough of them.

This odd mix of characters and cartoons should have worked but it didn’t, maybe in part because the choreography—soldier-like stamping routines, line and circle dances with a chorus line or two thrown in—essentially was so repetitive and monotonous. These dances were meant to be crude but should not have been boring to the beholder.

But something else may have contributed to the first act’s weakness. Mr. Bourne had the challenge to portray children via adult performers. Not just one or two, but a whole flock. For some reason this is extremely difficult to do. Mr. Bourne also didn’t seem quite sure whether he wanted us to see them as innocents/victims—in whatever form he thought of them—or as simply as elements in the story he wanted to tell. As a result, these actor/dancers played at being characters rather than inhabiting them. Instead of appearing either pathetic or funny or both, they looked dim-witted.

Still Mr. Bourne, even in 1991 and thus early in his career, have given this flawed “Nutcracker!” marvelously theatrical touches. Stepping out of the cabinet, the Superman Nutcracker (a charmingly handsome Adam Vincent) had to find his limbs like a doll made by Dr. Coppelius. And then to top this most delectable piece of manhood, Mr. Bourne gave him a sextet of muscle-sporting hunks. No wonder perky little Clara practically went out of her mind contemplating this abundance of testosterone.

The growth of the Christmas tree—from a dead plant to a giant barren tree perceived through cracking walls—also worked well because it so closely responded to the music’s sense of something truly awesome about to happen.

Would-be ice skaters in Sonja Henie-style skirts and caps danced the Waltz of the Snowflakes. But Mr. Bourne is no Busby Berkeley. His limited choreographic imagination could not sustain the surging music’s ebb and flow nor did he do much with that white on white palette which Busby handled so brilliantly. The act ends with Sugar having snatched the Prince from Clara who valiantly shrugged off one more of life’s disappointment.

The first act had suggested a theme of gluttony—boozy father, chocolate-smeared kids—which Mr. Bourne rather nicely expanded in the show’s second half. The hinted at sexual and other appetites here evolved into ubiquitous images of licking, tasting, gobbling and swallowing. In Act II the show hit something akin to stride.

Two of Mr. Bourne’s most fetching creations are the bumbling, rather lazy cupids who picked up Clara at the cross roads of Frozen Pond and Sweetieland. With cardboard wings, wire-rimmed glassed and blue and white pajamas, their first job is to affect a Cinderella transformation by dropping a polka-dress frock onto Clara. They can’t, however, get her into the party, guarded by the Humbug Bouncer (Adam Galbraith), standing in front of a huge throat. That second act beginning, to some of the Mother Ginger music, was near perfect.

The divertissements were reasonably amusing take offs on Ivanov’s creations though more notable for their humorous than their kinetic touches. The Arab/Knickerbocker character was danced by a pomaded, smoking jacket lounge lizard with snake arms and cigarette. The Spanish/Licorice, a fanny-slapping, hip-wiggling trio opened into two duets to include Clara, who had managed to sneak into the party. The three modestly leaping Gobstoppers, in candy-colored helmets and boots took over the music for the trepak. Five Mirlitons/Marshmallows, in pink powder puff skirts and hats looked as if they had stopped out of a dancing musical, matching modest steps with cutie pie poses. The Waltz of the Flowers was a community social including all of the participants with Clara weaving in and out, madly trying to catch ahold of her dream image.

The big let down came with the grand pas de deux, the wedding dance between Sugar and the Prince. It was thin and under developed, too much like Fred Astaire manqué. The piece ended on a mad cap note, abruptly plopping Clara on the floor as if she had fallen out of bed. As a last gesture, the lovers made good use out of the strips of sheeting which had been used in the first act’s knotty ribbon dance. I wondered where they had come from, all of a sudden.

Volume 2, No. 45
November 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano


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last updated on November 29, 2004