Having sat through Dog knows how many performances of the Nutcracker the past 3 years, it’s no surprise that I never caught the nuances, nay, the heart and essence of this timeless (2 hours plus) ballet and philosophical treatise. Why it is only performed during the holiday season is beyond me. What better way to fill a beautiful spring day, a stifling and balmy summer afternoon, the turning of fall leaves, a Black Sabbath?
I usually begin heavily sedated and self medicated, leaving nothing to chance and everything within arms reach.
Why then, oh dear reader, have I suddenly became self aware, cracked the bottle of consciousness and inhaled a pungent whiff of understanding?
I run the risk of repeating myself when I exclaim for all to hear:
Who could foresee that filthy rodent, that layer of droppings carrier of pestilence and plague could make an ardent love of the dance masterpiece out of me?
No, not the white variety which cause explorers of science and industry to drool in their cloned sheep-filled dreams, nor the white gloved star of the big screen. But gray mice. With tails and whiskers.
The size of children. Human children at that. That’s what caught my attention and caused me to delve into the magic and mystery of the Nutcracker.
Originally written by Madame Curie because fishmongers didn’t like to wrap their wares in plain paper and then re-written by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Nutcracker conveys the eternal struggle between Vampires and their familiars the Mice. Charles Darwin, who wrote the original lyrics before his banishment to Helena, Montana, noted that while Vampires are more commonly associated with bats, the frequency range of sound emitted by bats is above the normal range of human hearing and gambled that rodents, mice especially, would gain the ability of human speech much sooner than their flying cousins. Although he was correct, he never lived to see his final victory in court when he sued Walt Disney over Mickey Mouse’s speech aboard the USS Missouri at the end of World War 2.
The version of the Nutcracker we typically see is done in Mime, due to the over spicing and subsequent fusing of vocal chords of the original cast during opening night in Canberra, Australia, in 1906 and again in 1973.
The ballet begins with guests filing across the stage. After they have seated themselves, the dancers appear and file across the stage. The curtain lifts and dancing begins. This part was boring, so I turned my attention to the pastrami sandwich I brought from home. Having forgotten to bring chips and a pickle, I return my focus to the stage, where a Vampire is now prancing and scaring the bejeezus out of the children dancers. He is a Vampire because he is wearing a tuxedo and a cape. He is tall and blonde and handsome in a totally non-Slavic way. The Vampire either brings several inanimate objects to life and they dance, or else he mesmerizes the other dancers and audience members into believing that he has. The undead dancer now spies what he hopes to be his soup course, a small blonde girl with curls, ribbons and Type B Negative flowing through her veins. After much swooping, swaying and general goofiness, he hands her what looks to be a doll, which the girl dubiously accepts and tries to leave behind. The Vampire has coated the doll with Super Glue so the little girl, whose name is Clara or Sara or Sierra, cannot drop it. Instead, a small boy emerges from the wings and tries to relieve the girl of it. AHA! The Super Glue adheres to him as well. He manages to pry the doll from the girl (along with the top 2 layers of skin from her palms) and casts the now bloody figurine onto the floor and destroys it by jumping repeatedly on it.
Two things (well, maybe 3…) happen at once. The Vampire grabs the boy and heads Stage Right, all the while ripping the limbs from him. The girls walks over to the destroyed doll and cries from the pain in her hands, not, as the Vampire assumes, from the destruction of the skin-covered toy. I try to get backstage to see if one of the dancers is single, or if not, morally bankrupt. Shot down, I return to my seat and find that the Vampire, thinking Clara mourns for the doll, runs offstage, selects a babe in arms from a stage mother and drains it’s blood, turning it into a Nosferatu. He hands the demon baby to Sara, who is horrified but still dancing. A blow dart hits her mid-thigh and she collapses on a chair, which somehow appears Downstage Right. She curls fetally and foams lightly from her mouth.
At this point, the ballet begins with the arrival of the MICE. Scores of them scurry onstage, shuffling to and fro.
In Darwin’s original notes, the Mice come to the Vampire with a list of demands for better working conditions.
A long scene of arbitration was cut from the libretto when the election of union officials dance called for the firing of live weapons into the audience and proved too expensive. The Vampire calls forth an army of child-sized child soldiers, armed only with their innocence and paper-mache short swords. These can be turned upside down and used as crucifixes against the Vampire if a coffee break cannot be written into the second act. A prolonged battle between the soldiers and MICE ensues, neither side asking for nor giving quarter, although quite a few cigarettes are passed between the armies. MICE Stage Left, Soldiers Stage Right, Vampire Downstage Center, Sierra on the floor, having fallen from the chair.
With the MICE offstage, I quickly lose interest in the remaining scene and the entire second act. I was able to coax the dancer in question into a quick-change booth, only to discover she didn’t accept personal checks or debit cards. A defeated but enriched man, I leave the theatre with a new appreciation of the Dancing Arts and somebody else’s jacket.
The next day, the stage crew called me. They had read my much-heralded review of the Nutcracker and wanted me to see it from their Point Of View…ONSTAGE! By onstage, of course, they meant backstage, where it’s all guts and no glory, half finished crossword puzzles and the finest of the pastry arts.
THE HEART OF THE BEAST!
Arriving fashionably early, I helped myself to the dancers’ deli tray, not wanting them to get grease on their costumes or cramp up onstage from a hastily eaten snack before curtain time. (REMEMBER: DANCING IS LIKE SWIMMING. NO EATING AT LEAST 45 MINUTES BEFORE DANCING. 30 minutes is fine for light stretching and pectoral flexing, but nothing too strenuous.)
The Stage Crew is the unsung hero of the ballet. Without their strength, courage and more than enough bodies for the job at hand, these hard working men, women and undocumented aliens force the show to go on regardless of international exchange rates. I am introduced all around and given carte blanche backstage. “J” (names abbreviated to make it more difficult to find them in the phone directory) is working the “rail,” a preposterous series of ropes, weights and pulleys that make curtains and scenery appear on stage as if by magic. I now know better. He shows me the ropes, as it were. From his vantage point, he commands a view of the stage and the large television showing the Raiders losing to their cheerleaders.
“S,” or Steve as he is called, is the L.D., or Lighting Director. His job is to light up the stage from a booth far enough from the stage that any mistakes can be easily blamed on the architect or Stage Manager, today being a friendly if not incompetent Siamese Twin whose brother is the lead dancer.
Having free rein backstage, I mingle with the cast who are preparing themselves for today’s performance. They adjust their stage makeup and tighten their Kevlar dancing togs. Butterflies are not uncommon before the curtain rises. They battle this by going over their routines in place and by spitting large phlegm balls at understudies. I offer my hip flask to the dancer from yesterday. She accepts it and offers me her tonic for pre-show jitters, a “Tussintini,” equal parts gin, vodka, cough syrup, purified water and chocolate Pop Tarts. Shaken not stirred. A bit chunky, but after 3 pitchers, I don’t seem to mind.
The Vampire lurks about. He makes suggestions to the stage manager about his personal lighting, to the rail operator about how the curtains should part just so for his entrances and exits and to the custodian to see if he has found another cache of wooden stakes in the wings.
As I presumed, most of the dancers are kept in cages backstage. These cages are large, well ventilated affairs with slots in the bars to allow food to be passed in with metal sticks without worrying about getting too close. Many a catering staffer has found him or herself minus a finger trying to feed and water dancers. To my surprise, another cage houses the DANCING MICE. I assumed that they used MICE found in the basement and alley of the theatre and herded them onstage with fire hoses and electric prods, but delighted in knowing the ballet used more “humane” methods. Thinking back, this makes sense, as there are numerous performances of the Nutcracker during the Holiday Season and no way to ensure the proper number needed for each matinee. It is also very green, this recycling of MICE. I am told that the MICE who survive the run of the ballet are served to cast and crew at the Wrap Party, a belt loosening and top-secret soiree after the final performance but before sentencing.
At this point, the “Orchestra” is lead in single file in chains and handcuffs. Those without hands get the day off, but are fined a day’s pay for not showing up. While claims for the score’s authorship in continually in doubt, it is nevertheless played with gusto and air guitar. The “Musicians” look criminally familiar; almost as if the kitchen staff from the Cambodian restaurant behind the theatre was rounded up (at gunpoint) and frog marched into the orchestra pit. My spider sense tingles when I see crates of live chickens, portable gas fires and 3 waiters following the ensemble. The conductor, though recently deceased, makes a splendid entrance in drag and a bronze urn. The musicians take no notice and continue to prep appetizers. The tympanis have become large woks and deep fryers. The double bass starts to smolder until the reeds douse it with soy and fish sauce.
As the audience is wheeled in, a scuffle breaks out between the musicians and the MICE. A P.A. (or Production Assistant) allowed a few musicians to take some of the smaller and more succulent MICE for a walk and they, in turn, went for a wok! The remaining MICE complain that they must still pay full price for food.
The house lights go down. The only sound from the audience is the regular whispers from ventilators and iron lungs. The conductor sits on his podium, not moving until the orchestra tunes up. After 30 minutes, “J” sneaks into the pit and pushes play on the iPod on top of a large walk-in freezer now between the violins and the salad station. The music rumbles to life and then abruptly stops when a trombonist/busboy plugs in a coffee maker and shorts out the pit. Batteries are found and the music comes back to life. Not so the conductor, who remains immobile and most probably still dead.
The dancers coolly await their entrance while standing in troughs of cold water 9 inches deep. Failure to move on cue results in a stagehand tossing an electric extension cord in the trough.
Act 1 begins and the dancers stumble onstage. The first scene has the characters crossing from Downstage Right to Left as if they’re entering the DMV or tipping cows. The iPod skips and goes back and forth between Milli Vanilli and Metallica. The dancers, having never really paid attention to the music anyway, trip over each other somewhat in time. The scrim (somewhat curtainy, somewhat not) raises (rises?) and we’re in what seems to be the food court in a shopping mall.
The Vampire is just about to prance on stage when I whisper loudly, “DUDE! YOUR HAIR!” His eyes widen and he reaches up to his head to investigate. I see a small mirror and hold it up to his face. He hisses and falls backward over 2 orders of Fisherman’s Favorite (#12), Black Squid and Pork Crispies (appetizer #3) and enough rice for a Moonie wedding. He recovers quickly, knocking over only 8 or 9 dancers to get to his spot, constantly feeling his hair between leaps and bounds.
I notice that many of the dancers have switched roles, either because of rotation, injuries or restraining orders. The dancer playing Clara (or Sarah or Larry) has been replaced by a small pale girl with dark hair and several crucifixes and garlic wreaths dangling from her neck. The boy who grabbed the doll from Clara (sic) is the same. I walk up to him and mention that it is rude to grab, that he should ask politely if he might see the doll. He haughtily spins away and is about to utter a curse when I taze him on the neck. He twitches for a moment before I stuff him into the cannon. I grab his hat, clamp it on the head of a passing waiter and shove him onstage. The Vampire swoops down on him, briefly considering the Randomly Fried Yum Yums (appetizer #8), then snaps his neck and tosses the body on the chair Downstage Right. Sierra, whose next routine was a lap dance with a soldier on the very same chair, improvises a pole dance on the tree, not realizing that it is merely a painted canvas drop (and attached to the scene behind it), A loud ripping sound fills the stage, causing every dancer to look down. Bumping, grinding and general hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, the injured iPod settles on Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady” and half of the dancers nervously look back and forth.
At this point, the MICE are uncaged and swarm to the waiter instead of Sarah, who has untangled herself from the backdrop and searching the floor for dollar bills and her right contact lens. She then attempts to wake the soldier who has passed out in the chair. Unable to revive him, she grabs four of the MICE and fashion them into a settee upon which she climbs on and lashes out at the other MICE. They, in turn, ignore the soldiers who have amassed onstage for the battle sequence and make polite catcalls at Sarah, who is considering returning to secretarial school and/or another line of work, parole notwithstanding. Insulted by the MICE’s seemingly newfound pacifism, the soldiers roll the cannon onstage and light the fuse. Shredded boy whizzes from the cannon’s breach and covers anything in a 2 block radius.
I find my dancer who is e-mailing her resume to Norway and we exit Stage Left.
As much as I have fallen in love with the Nutcracker, I feel that some updating must occur in order for this masterpiece to reach a wider market. With that in mind, I am currently adapting the ballet for all audiences and all tastes.
Coming soon: The Nutcracker as performed by Transformers, Debbie Does Nutcracker, Rocky Versus Nutcracker, Rambo Versus Nutcracker, Night of the Living Nutcracker, Slum Dog Nutcracker, Full Contact Nutcracker, Crouching Tiger Hidden Nutcracker, a Roller Derby Nutcracker and my personal favorite, a Samurai version of SEVEN Nutcracker.
Happy Happy Joy Joy