Choose your own 'Nutcracker' adventure this season
Austin offers six variations on the classic holiday show
You think you know “The Nutcracker.”
It’s that holiday treat, you confidently say, that combines music and dance around a story about a young girl’s Christmas dream of a doll that comes alive to engage in rodentine battles and then travels with her to a land of wonders.
True, up to a point.
“The Nutcracker,” based on the dark E.T.A Hoffman tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” almost always includes dance, usually classical ballet, and music, usually the 1892 score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, sometimes performed in two acts, at other times condensed into the 20-minute “Nutcracker Suite,” which popularized the music for a show that was something of a failure a first.
After that, the variations — at least six adaptations can be seen in Austin this season — are infinite.
Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker,” staged at the Long Center for the Performing Arts by artistic director Stephen Mills, for instance, follows the general outlines of the 1890s original, which featured choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It also nods to the 1954 New York City Ballet rendition by George Balanchine, which helped boost the show into the ranks of annual holiday traditions in this country.
Only two years later, in 1956, the company that became known as Ballet Austin was born. It has been performing variations on “The Nutcracker” or “The Nutcracker Suite” for more than 55 years, first at the Municipal Auditorium, which was renamed Palmer Auditorium, then at Bass Concert Hall, and now at the Long Center.
The current staging includes the company’s 22 full-time professional dancers, some of them trading off roles during the 14 performances, as well as members of Ballet Austin II and Ballet Austin Academy trainees. Although it would be correct to call this a traditional “Nutcracker,” the choreography belongs to Mills alone; Austin Symphony performs the full Tchaikovsky score. Every decade or so, Ballet Austin updates the sets and costumes.
Tapestry Dance Company, one of the world’s leading tap/rhythm companies, takes off in its own creative directions. “Of Mice & Music” is danced to an original score that includes Tchaikovsky variations played by a jazz band. Like Ballet Austin’s version, the show lassoes in the group’s professional company with members of its youth and adult academies and ensembles.
Conceived by artistic director Acia Gray, “Of Mice & Music” plays out in a relatively short one act. It updates the tale to focus on a teen girl and her mice-addled mother. While many of the traditional characters and themes pop up, contemporary additions include an ugly-sweater brigade and a tap-off between the Nutcracker and the Rat King.
Austin Metamorphosis Dance Ensemble — an amalgamation of two longstanding local groups, Metamorphosis Dance and the Austin Dance Ensemble — presents another twist on “The Nutcracker” at the Boyd Vance Theater at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center.
Guest artists from Ballet Austin join this excellent Round Rock-based training group, which has produced a parade of professional dancers for outfits such as Washington Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. The company, which also performs annually at the Zilker Hillside Theater, blends classical ballet techniques with modern-influenced contemporary ballet.
Vlad Glouchkov, who has danced with several Austin companies, including Tapestry, and now heads the Metamorphosis’ board of directors, sent us a preview of this staging’s fresh perspective.
“Clara has just turned 18 and is excited about what her future holds,” Glouchkov writes. “During a holiday party, her world-traveling aunt arrives with a handsome assistant. Clara is immediately consumed with dreams of joining them on their travels. However, her father has different plans for her future, and when the two face off, Clara is forced to make a choice. If she goes with her aunt, she not only gets to see the world, but also be with the love of her life. Sadly, that choice would also take her away from her beloved family. What will Clara choose? Will the choice tear her family apart or bring them closer together?”
Ballet Afrique Contemporary Dance Company, among the city’s most celebrated young groups, presents “Nutcracker Suite” with music by Duke Ellington, also at the Boyd Vance Theater.
Were he still alive, Vance — a top actor, dancer, singer, director, activist and entertainer — would have loved this pairing. Founded 10 years ago by China Smith, Ballet Afrique combines ballet, modern and African movement to foster understanding and appreciation for the cultures and experiences of the African diaspora. Its training program includes students from age 2 to 18.
“When you come through that door, I want you to immediately know you’re accepted” Smith told this newspaper earlier this year. “And when you come into this room, you are going to learn about African culture, that’s for sure, because it’s important for everybody to build an appreciation and value for it. It doesn’t work if just black people feel appreciation and value of black arts. Ballet Afrique is really for Austin. All of Austin.”
For the 18th time, Austin City Ballet, based on Anderson Mill Road, will present its never-old “Austin Children’s Nutcracker,” this time at the Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.
For 28 years, the group has trained students of all ages who are beginners or on a pre-professional track. Its “Nutcracker” sticks with the tried and true: Clara and the doll that transforms into a prince and then fights the Rat King before accompanying her to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets.
Here, the spotlight, naturally, falls on the young dancers.
One last variation: "The Muttcracker (Sweet!)." Circus Chickendog's irresistible show, staged for the eighth year at the Vortex, sends Clara, along with trained animals — five dogs and a talking scarlet macaw — to a circus land of jugglers, cyclists, dancers and more. Tyler Mabry’s original score, performed live, includes bits of Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker Suite.”
And you thought you knew “The Nutcracker.”
SIX AUSTIN TAKES ON 'THE NUTCRACKER'
Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker”
Long Center, Dell Hall, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Tapestry Dance Company’s “Of Mice & Music”
Long Center, Rollins Studio Theatre, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Austin Metamorphosis Dance Ensemble’s “The Nutcracker”
Nov. 30-Dec. 2
Boyd Vance Theater at the Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.
Ballet Afrique’s “Nutcracker Suite”
Boyd Vance Theater at the Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.
Austin City Ballet’s “Austin Children’s Nutcracker”
St. Andrews Fine Arts Theatre, 5901 Southwest Parkway
Circus Chickendog’s “Muttcracker (Sweet!)”
Dec. 20-Jan. 6
The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road