Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls discussed a vibrant and off-the-wall re-imagining of a classic piece of holiday entertainment. Let’s listen in on the conversation…
“Well, it’s certainly not The Nutcracker.”
Dania figured this was still fine to say within 100 yards of the theater. Rather than a subjective opinion, it seemed like a provable fact.
Eleanor pushed her program into her bag. “I mean, it’s pretty close.”
“How is this close to The Nutcracker?”
“Well, it’s still the same story,” Eleanor said. “Little girl at Christmas party gets visit from eccentric uncle, who gives a nutcracker as a gift, then there’s an army of mice…”
Dania stopped her. “Okay, yes, the plot is the same,” she said. “But it’s more than plot. That’s like saying The Lion King is ‘basically’ Hamlet. There’s a difference.”
“It’s not precisely the same,” Gwen said, pushing the doors to the theatre open. “All of Act II has a revised plot.”
“Does it, though?” Eleanor asked. They paused momentarily to throw on jackets – even in Berkeley, where The Hard Nut was in residence during December, the weather was colder than normal. Nonetheless, the sun shone down as the Girls walked the wreath-laden streets.
“It’s not the same second act as the traditional ballet,” Gwen said. “Where Clara and the Nutcracker go to the world of candy and watch people dance. There’s a plot with Drosselmeyer that ties it together.”
“But that still results in him traveling all over the world,” Dania said. “Exactly the same as the music from all over the world thing that happens in the ballet. It even has the same vaguely racist Chinese characters.”
“Why can’t anyone ever ditch that?” Eleanor moaned. “Even the Wheeldon one in Chicago, which premiered last year, didn’t change that.”
“It’s not all the same,” Gwen said. “The Italian ‘harlequin’ dance becomes about France here. Besides, how else would you tie together all these different styles of music? At least here it makes sense why he’s traveling, rather than simply sitting and watching the dances happen one after another.”
“I don’t know,” Dania said. “It’s just a little too weird for my tastes. All of it – cool visuals, maybe. But the plot doesn’t make any sense.”
“But it’s the same plot as the original Nutcracker!” Eleanor said. “What’s changed, just the second act?”
“Yeah, just the entire second act,” Dania answered. “Not to mention that it’s a ballet, and there’s barely any ballet in the first act. The whole party scene is all modern and ‘dance theater.'”
“This is barely ‘dance theater,'” Gwen countered. “It’s simply stylized movement and blocking. Not every step in the ballet has to be Rond de Jambes and Arabesques.”
“Sure,” Dania said. “But you listen to the music, it’s very classical. Something doesn’t make sense when everyone is dancing with these modern steps while a classical song plays. There are more than a few moments where the music ends and there’s no…you know, end to the dance. It just stops.”
“It’s true that much of the choreography lacks the closing ‘button’ you’d normally see in ballet,” Gwen agreed. “But the music doesn’t have to drive the dance style. It’s designed so the style of dance always fits to the emotion of the scene going on. By the time they reach the snowflakes, it’s ballet again.”
Dania shook her head. “I mean, you’re always the one saying that all the pieces of the play need to ‘gel,’ or whatever. I don’t get why it doesn’t matter here that the music and dance are different.”
Eleanor stopped her. “Wait, if you look at the original Nutcracker, it’s not ballet until the Battle of the Mouse King either.”
They stopped at a crosswalk, allowing Eleanor to look at Dania directly.
“There’s barely any ballet in the first half of The Nutcracker. It’s mostly the family dancing at their party – just like this one.”
“But it’s waltzes and stuff like that,” Dania countered. “Not…”
She attempted to replicate some of the moves from the show. While set distinctly in the 1970s, a few more recent dance moves seemed to have snuck in. Perhaps, in the interim between the ballet’s 1991 premiere and now, Mark Morris had allowed the dancers to improvise.
“I think it’s just the style they’re going for,” Gwen said, as they began to cross the street. “Besides, who said it was a ballet? Mark Morris Dance Group does all kinds of dance.”
“The Nutcracker is a ballet,” Dania said. “The music was written for a ballet. I’m pretty sure most people walking into the show are expecting some kind of ballet.”
“Well, maybe that’s the intention, then,” Eleanor suggested. “They know people are coming in expecting a certain something from The Nutcracker, so your surprise at the changes is part of the impact.”
“Maybe,” Dania said.
“I really enjoyed it, to be clear,” Gwen said.
“Oh, you’re clear.”
“It’s the visual design that stands out to me,” continued Gwen. “That pulp comic book aesthetic. This is definitely a production where the sets and costumes are part of the performance text. You couldn’t substitute the Balanchine Nutcracker choreography with these designs.”
“I mean, you could,” Eleanor reminded her. “People redesign the ballet of The Nutcracker all the time.”
“The other way around, then,” Gwen said. “If you removed the designs, and staged the Hard Nut choreography with more traditional costumes and sets, it wouldn’t be the same show. Part of the impact is the interaction between choreo and design – like all the best dance pieces, it’s about creating impactful images through movement.”
“I really like the Dance of the Flowers in Act II,” Eleanor said. “With the Queen in the middle, walking forward with this chorus of flowers behind her.”
“The final moment in Act I is really peaceful. Drosselmeyer walking out into the snow,” Gwen said. “All the snowflake dancers bow to him – it’s so good, I almost wish they’d saved it for the end.”
“Well, first of all,” Dania said, “you just reminded me of another moment that felt weird, which is the three-headed Elvis Mouse King with his heads on his forearms – which is a really weird design choice.”
“No weirder than a Mouse King with seven heads all smashed into one skull,” Eleanor said. “Which is what most people do.”
“Whatever,” Dania said. “But also the Flower Dance – like, what?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Gwen said, opening the program. “Do you need a better excuse to have people dancing all the time?”
“I mean, kind of,” Dania said. She took the program from Gwen. “With all the winter images in the play – I mean, it’s a holiday show – you don’t exactly expect springtime dances in the finale. Look here in the plot description: ‘Marie offers her love to Drosselmeyer’s nephew. To celebrate Marie’s budding womanhood, her mother leads the plant world in the Waltz of the Flowers.'”
“I mean, it makes about as much sense as anything from the original Nutcracker,” Eleanor said. “How do Clara and the Nutcracker make it to Candy Island? Who is the massive woman with children under her dress?”
“I’ve never seen a version of the story explain how Clara – or Marie, whichever story you follow…”
“It’s Clara in the ballet,” Dania corrected.
Gwen shrugged. “It’s Marie in the E.T.A. Hoffman story, and I’ve never seen anyone explain why she shrinks in size. The point is, no version of this story is going to adequately explain everything that happens. That’s the rules of engagement when it comes to ballet – and opera, for that matter.”
Dania wasn’t sure she agreed with Gwen’s convenient double-standard for judging ballet. While she agreed that most ballet was focused on the dance, rather than any story, that seemed to her to be what differentiated The Nutcracker and made it a classic. The story, while wild, remained navigable. The Hard Nut had just a few too many quick turns for her to follow along.
“It’s not awful,” Dania admitted. “But I just like the original Nutcracker better. It feels more imbued with Christmas spirit than this one. Clara riding out in the sleigh is a better ending than the maid turning the T.V. off in this one.”
“Why was the Marie and Nutcracker story playing on the T.V. in that final scene?” Eleanor wondered. “I thought that was within the same world as the party scene from the beginning.”
“It’s a mystery,” Gwen said. “Maybe it was all a dream. Even the Hoffman story forgets the line between the story-within-the-story and the outer narrative a few times.”
“Speaking of which,” Gwen said, pointing at the window they were walking by. Sitting in the corner, sure enough – a nutcracker. Crimson coat and stiff wooden joints, its painted eyes staring out at the street.
The girls paused at the window to observe the decorations.
“Oooh, look at the top of the tree!” Eleanor smiled, pointing up at the angel overlooking the scene.
Dania glanced around the window – a small mannequin held aloft a stuffed animal of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. She considered Rudolph more closely: how would a reindeer be born with a shiny red nose? Would the light from that nose really help navigate in the fog? And what does the Island of Misfit Toys have to do with everything else?
These questions hadn’t bothered her before. She’d watched Rudolph each year since she could remember, and could quote it line for line – it had even helped her learn English. Content had never really mattered. It was a tradition.
As Gwen and Eleanor commented on the festive decorations in the window, Dania thought about The Hard Nut once again. Perhaps, she thought, a nutcracker becoming a prince made as much sense as a nephew becoming a nutcracker. Maybe.
Image Credit: Boston Academy of Music