“The Nutcracker” is a big deal for any ballet company.
The traditional Christmastime dance production typically generates the majority of ticket revenue for a season, and Ballet Wichita is no exception.
Because of that, most companies produce the same “Nutcracker” year after year – why change what audiences already love and buy tickets for regularly?
Not Ballet Wichita.
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This year, Ballet Wichita brought in high-profile New Yorkers to change everything about its “Nutcracker” – so much so that its 2017 production is being billed “The New Nutcracker.”
It’s part of an effort to make a splash in the national – and international – dance world, and so far it’s working, said Sean McLeod, director and choreographer for “The New Nutcracker.”
“Ballet Wichita was brave enough to take this really, really big leap in trying to reestablish what a world-class ballet company in the Midwest could do,” said McLeod, who is president of the New York Institute of Dance and Education. “I did my best to create something so unique that the world of dance, both in New York and Los Angeles, would pay attention to it.”
So how, exactly, is it a new “Nutcracker”?
McLeod reexamined the original 1816 book, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” and found it was part of a series – “it was kind of like the ‘Harry Potter’ of the 1800s, if you will,” he said.
By “inferring between the lines,” he said, the traditional dancing sweets in the second act of the show represent more than pretty candies – they are meant to be representations of different world cultures.
His adaptation makes that obvious, celebrating those cultures in a more accurate way. For example, the Russian candy canes no longer have their fancy tutus; rather, they will be in traditional Russian dress.
“‘The Nutcracker’ at times has inadvertently perpetuated stereotypical dispositions for peoples’ cultures, such as the waving of fingers in the Chinese – I know a lot of Chinese people and no one has ever done that in front of me,” McLeod said. “The same thing with the Arabian – we act like a snake and somehow we’re representing Middle Eastern culture. Or if we yell out the word ‘ole!’ we’re Spanish.
“We just decided to make sure our ‘Nutcracker’ celebrates the differences in everybody.”
The other major plot change: the uncle Drosselmeyer is “a straight-up, no-holds-barred wizard” in this interpretation. In the traditional “Nutcracker” that is implied, but never outright stated.
“His powers are wielding time and being able to wield the inference of love, to be able to create conditions where love can grow more easily,” McLeod said.
Because this production is set in 2017, the costumes have been totally updated.
For example, in its iconic party scene, the dancers have eschewed their customary 1800s hoop skirts in favor of modern party gowns.
“We’re just kind of getting a fresh take on what we’ve used in the past if we are using it again,” said Katie Andrusak, a principal dancer in the ballet who also serves as assistant to the director and choreographer.
McLeod also has tried to inject more humor into the story, he said.
“One of our main goals was ... we wanted to see if we could not put anybody to sleep in that first act,” he said with a laugh. “How inventive could we be without breaking the classical story, but making sure we could do something the original author was hinting at?”
As inventive as it may be, the production still draws on the traditions Ballet Wichita has established. Earlier this year, longtime artistic director Jill Landrith retired from the organization.
“It’s based on ... all those who came before,” McLeod said. “It’s not like the great New Yorkers come in and rescue things. We contribute to what’s already existing and we help it get to a new level.”
Bringing in McLeod and guest artistic director Karen Brown – who was a principal ballerina for the Dance Theatre of Harlem from 1973 to 1995 – was “no small issue” for Ballet Wichita, McLeod said.
“They took a leap, they spent the resources and brought in two noted people from the global scene of dance and brought them into Wichita,” he said. “The fact that they also happen to be some of the most noted African-Americans in classical ballet is not something that is lost on me.
“It’s brought a lot of attention to Ballet Wichita nationally and even here in the community.”
Ballet Wichita is not alone in producing “The Nutcracker” in Wichita – Friends University traditionally puts on its own production of the ballet every year.
“One of the first things I attempted to do (at Ballet Wichita) was eliminate any of the competitive nature,” McLeod said. “In the arts there should never be competition – there should only be support of each other. If (Brown and I) are the new artistic leadership of Ballet Wichita, (other productions) need to know they have instant friendship. If they need a tutu and we’ve got one, we’ll send it right over.”
Once “The New Nutcracker” is over, McLeod said there are plans in place to ensure it won’t be a “one-hit wonder,” part of which includes creating a connection between Ballet Wichita and McLeod and Brown’s many New York-based dance connections.
“Famous people in the dance world have come to Wichita,” McLeod said. “Somehow you were good enough to get our attention, and you wanted our attention. Now you too have a foothold in this world of dance.”