“Is this her first Nutcracker?” asked Dania, as the applause built.
“No, she’s been before,” Gwen answered, watching her sister dance. As soon as the curtain call had begun, Hazel was on her feet, leading the adults to stand as well. She leapt off the ground, attempting to replicate the virtuosic jetés of the dancers. Gwen, bending down, put a hand on her shoulder.
“Wait until we’re outside,” she whispered, among the applause. “You could kick someone.”
Hazel scowled, but her feet remained planted.
Gwen returned to applauding the company. As the Jack Dolls finished their bows, they ran into the audience, presumably for some light comedy with the patrons seated on the aisles. By the time the full cast was taking their final bows, the trio of harlequins had just enough time to bolt back onstage –– and be trapped in front of the curtain.
The lights rose in the auditorium with the Jacks pawing at the curtain, looking for an exit.
“They’re stuck outside!” Hazel yelled. Gwen grinned, nervously.
“Yes, they are,” she replied. “Please us an indoor voice, Hazel.”
“Oops,” she said.
Turning around, the Jacks looked towards the children, all howling with laughter, and slowly scooted their way behind the proscenium.
“Well, then,” Eleanor said, picking up her coat. “Should we get some air?”
“Do you have all your things, Hazel?” asked Gwen. “Coat, gloves, hat…”
“I have them!”
Gwen picked up a scarf from underneath the seat. “Scarf?”
“Got it!” Hazel cried, taking the scarf from her sister.
“All right, let’s go,” said Eleanor, with a laugh.
Hazel danced her way out of the aisle, with Gwen not far behind. It was true, she had seen The Nutcracker before, but never live. Both she and Gwen had grown up watching 1986’s trippy Nutcracker: The Motion Picture –– essentially a filmed version of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Stowell & Sendak” production. But while both the film and the Milwaukee Ballet production strayed from the original E.T.A. Hoffman storyline, they’d made vastly different changes.
“Aren’t there usually only two kids?” asked Dania. “I thought Clara just had a brother.”
Gwen nodded. “She typically does. In the Hoffman story, the two children are Marie and Fritz, with Marie going on the journey with the Nutcracker and defeating the Mouse King. Most of the ballet versions have changed her name to Clara since then.”
“So they’re not condensing things down,” Dania added. “Putting all the characters in.”
“Well, Marie in the story is Clara in the ballet. A separate third sibling that falls in love with Drosselmeyer’s assistant isn’t in any other version, that I know of.”
“And that all three of them get taken to the Land of Sweets?” Eleanor pointed out. “That’s definitely unique.”
“It was a story more about siblings than just about Clara,” Gwen surmised. “Fritz has more development than just the rambunctious younger sibling who breaks the Nutcracker in Act I.”
“Yeah, now he’s the rambunctious older sidling who breaks––”
“The ballet does do a good job of diversifying the three Tannenbaum children, with nothing more than physicality,” Eleanor agreed. “I was worried I was going to get Marie and Clara confused without the color coding of the first scene, but eventually you pick up that Marie’s physicality is more poised and careful than Clara’s. And Fritz does shift, subtly, as the story goes on. He and Clara grow closer together as non-romantic dance partners, and…”
“Non-romantic dance partners,” Dania repeated. “How often do you hear that?”
“Not often enough,” Eleanor scoffed. “They also learn to stop interrupting their sister when she’s romancing Karl –– this is sort of what you said, Gwen. The true thematic arc of the show is how the sibling relationships change over the course of the journey.”
“I felt that, definitely,” Dania said. “I’ve been that younger sibling, teasing my sister when she had a boy over. And I remember the moment when I suddenly realized how serious she was about falling in love, and it forced me to take it seriously.”
“And to do that without dialogue?” Eleanor added. “In the context of blocking only?”
“Within an incredibly well-worn ballet, too,” Gwen said. “Any choreographer can reinvent The Nutcracker, shake up the dances and change the setting. But to find room for the motivation and the character building? That’s skilled.”
“I saw in the program that the director, Michael Pink, has directed for Milwaukee Rep before,” Eleanor said. “And not fluff, stuff like Assassins and Next To Normal. He knows what he’s doing.”
“What was your favorite part, Hazel?” asked Dania, as the child pulled her hat up from over her eyes.
“Um…” she thought, tugging at her jacket. “I liked the part where the tree got bigger.”
“That’s always my favorite part,” Eleanor said. “When the music just keeps building and building, and the furniture gets bigger and bigger. Always a hit.”
“Eh, I thought they could have done a better job syncing the music to the action, on impact moments.”
“You know, moments when the score communicates a particular mood or action,” Gwen explained. “Like the gunshot going off. That’s an obvious one –– but there are other turns in the score that felt like they weren’t punctuated with corresponding action in the dancing.”
“What about the flossing?” asked Eleanor. “The one moment where the Jack Doll started––”
“We do not discuss the Jack Doll flossing.”
“I also liked…” Hazel began.
“The part where it was like…”
As explanation, Hazel launched into an ungraceful but spirited rendition of the Waltz of the Flowers –– which had been executed perfectly by the Milwaukee Ballet Company during the performance. Even Gwen, nitpicker that she was, admired the grace and speed of the company members, shifting swiftly through the quick transitions of Michael’s Pink’s choreography. An early moment, during Clara’s first interruption of Karl and Marie, in which the two daughters were effortlessly swapped out mid-fuete, was a high point.
“And the part where she was like…” Hazel continued, before bending down, and attempting to jump up with her hands on the pavement.
“Don’t touch the ground, it’s dirty!” Gwen chided.
“And he lifts her up!” Hazel said, stretching her arms to the sky.
“Ah, yes, the one-handed lift –– that got people reacting in the crowd,” Dania recalled. “They were pretty quiet most of the show. Except for this one pocket in the audience left who kept clapping first.”
“Excited subscribers, I guarantee it.”
“And also the part where there was the clown!” Hazel remembered. “And he was jumping and funny!”
“He was my favorite part, too,” Eleanor smiled, with the forbidden dance move still at the forefront of her mind.
“The production had this really joyful energy throughout,” Gwen said. “You could feel that in the orchestra. The tonal variance they gave to the score made it sound –– well, not fresh, it’s the Nutcracker. At least less stale.”
“I’ve sensed it before, with other productions,” Eleanor agreed, “when the orchestra can play the music backwards with their eyes closed. But the score, for the most part, felt more energized and excited. Even if they did take a lot of the tempos slower.”
“True. They really love stretching out the final two measures before every button, don’t they?”
“Even the set design!” Dania agreed. “That proscenium, right when you walk in, it’s like, ‘here’s a story for children! Look at the entire toy chest we’ve dumped onto the stage!'”
“The Nutcracker has always been the one ballet that you take the entire family to,” Gwen pointed out. “But it was still staged like any other ballet. Milwaukee Ballet’s production feels like it’s aiming at a younger demographic –– a ballet for “families,” perhaps. Maybe that’s a semantic difference, but you understand what I mean.”
“Sort of,” replied Dania. “I mean, it’s still ballet. They’re not pulling punches or half-measuring just because it’s for younger viewers. But I get what you mean: the sets and costumes are more block-colored and simple, the comedy is slapstick and broad. There are three child characters to root for rather than just the one –– and they do more than the original Clara does in other Nutcrackers.”
“This was definitely the production that made me realize that The Nutcracker is, in one sense, a story with a child protagonist. Original Clara is more the observer in a wild world, like Oliver Twist. These three are more…aspirational? It feels weird to call them that.”
“They’re active and not passive.”
“See, there’s the words.”
“So maybe that’s why it feels like it’s for younger people,” Dania pointed out. “It’s more high energy. In the orchestra, like you said, but also in the way the characters act.”
“Again, siblings!” Eleanor repeated. “The moment when Fritz throws a snowball at Clara? That’s childish, and by the end he matures! Slightly!”
“There’s the marketing angle for you,” Gwen quipped. “A Nutcracker that’s truly about and for children.”
“And by children!” Dania recollected. “Don’t forget the angel children at the top of Act II!”
“Angels!” Hazel shouted out. Tucking her arms back and sticking her nose forward, she ran in circles around her sister’s friends, just as she’d seen her contemporaries do.
“There’s a line in the director’s note where he mentions that some of the child dancers start as angels before ‘graduating’ up to be Mother Ginger kids,” said Eleanor. “So some of them have been in the show multiple years in a row.”
“Now that’s a production for the whole family!” Dania smiled, as she stepped out of the way to allow Hazel a path to continue running around her.
Image Credit: Milwaukee Ballet Company Dancers / Photo: Mark Frohna