writers on dancing


An Offbeat Nutcracker That's Sheer Fun

David Parker and the Bang Group
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
December 18, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter

However many versions—pure or twisted—of "The Nutcracker" you've seen, you may never have come across the bouncy little rhyming lyric for the Russian dance (Trepak) that begins "Hark to the sound of the balalaikas." It is featured in the opening bit of "Nut/Cracked," David Parker's nifty, offbeat hour of "Nutcracker"-inspired dancing that veers off in a variety of unexpected directions but always communicates a deep affection for the music, the tradition, and for the act of dancing itself.

From the first moments, we're clued in that there are no rules here, and that expectations should be put aside. Mr. Parker, who blends a sweet goofiness with an average-guy demeanor, stands downstage on a small piece of flooring in a Santa hat, with a grey "beard" made of shaving cream. He does a brief tap routine, then sings the tongue-twisting Trepak ditty, and soon is joined by Jeffrey Kazin for further tapping and singing, until they are breathlessly doing both at once. While the melody is deeply familiar, their version lets you hear its rhythms in a new way.

After they finish and matter-of-factly carry off their miniature tap floor, company members rush through picking up (and giving each other) items that had been arranged in three clusters on the floor. Many are red, and they mostly connote the holiday or the ballet itself—gift packages, a fan, a small white veil, a bottle of wine, a flower, a miniature tree, a top hat. These will eventually reappear within the various pithy individual numbers that spill across the stage with vaudevillean charm and an air of let's-put-on-a-show ingenuity.

The earlier selections are set to an assortment of American popular arrangements of the score, while the later ones use orchestral performances (recordings by three different British orchestras). The former included several sections from Duke Ellington's terrific well-known jazz adaptation, but also an oddball assortment, the kitschiest of which are several sung by Fred Waring (the author of those Trepak lyrics) and the Pennsylvanians. Mr. Parker treats us to quite an sampling of interpretations of the Sugar Plum Fairy's variation. Most magical is a version played on handbells, during which he tiptoes across the darkened stage in toe shoes, pointing a flashlight down at his feet so that we see only them. There's something macabre and magical about those disembodied feet picking their way towards us. It's also a distillation of what the Sugar Plum Fairy is to most people—those otherworldly pink-clad feet balancing on pointe. Just before he exits, Mr. Parker turns the flashlight up towards his face, and flashes a goofy smile—reminding us that it's all in fun.

For sheer fun—not to mention a handy demonstration of how to fake tap dance sounds in bare feet—Amber Sloan bounces, tumbles and jumps and "taps" on a sheet of bubble wrap, performing with the exuberance of a child creating his own new game, but also taking her cues form the musical beat.

Ms. Sloan is one of several dancers—most noticeably the lean, implacable, ready-for-anything Mr. Kazin—are members of the Bang Group, while others (including choreographer Sara Hook and former Paul Taylor dancer Mary Cochran) are listed as guest artists. The cast of 21 also includes a larger group of "featured" performers who rush on for several large ensemble sections. They create the effect of a cast of thousands in the hectic "Hustle" section, in which an homage to John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" moves, cheerleader routines, and an aerobic workout somehow coexist happily, all set to the "Trepak." Mr Parker manages to slip in a little Balanchine in-joke; when they full group first appears, they stand in lines remarkably similar to the opening moments of "Serenade."

Everyone wears simple white t-shirts or tank tops, and dark stretch pants with white stripes down the side. During the later sections, loose white blouses are added, and some dancers briefly add dark jackets. Whatever they are called upon to do, they perform it matter-of-factly, so that even the odder moments are presented as perfectly logical activities that we must figure out. These include a strange duet in which Mr. Kazin and Ms. Hook take turns dipping their fingers into a goblet of water and licking them, making sounds by rubbing the goblet's wet rim, and conclude by warbling a few measures of music sung by the children's chorus during the Snowflakes' dance.

Mr. Parker's fascination with putting someone's fingers into someone else's mouth reaches its apotheosis to the simultaneously absurd and romantic duet that he and Mr. Kazin perform to the Grand Pas de Deux, in which they use their thumbs as their main point of contact and connection. They reach over, under and around each other with an air of seriousness and intense focus, and even perform some lifts that seem to get their momentum from their thumbs. It's all extremely clever, both in the canny way it's set to the music, and in the way it hints at down-and-dirty things yet maintains an aura of decorum.

Volume 2, No. 48
December 20, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter


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last updated on December 20, 2004