Ballet and popular culture have been enjoying an unusually close relationship in recent times. Following on the success of Natalie Portman’s highly neurotic and nail-biting ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, shows like Breaking Pointe and The Secret Lives of Dancers portray daily life at, respectively, Salt Lake City’s Ballet West and The Royal New Zealand Ballet. Pop also made it onto the main stage at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House last spring, when Wayne McGregor invited musicians like Boy George, Mark Ronson and Alison Mosshart to perform live for his new work Carbon Life. So why not add some Gangnam Style to The Nutcracker? Guest blogger Mette looks at an unusual production of this holiday season staple:
A new Nutcracker promising to attract people who might find The Royal Danish Ballet too posh premiered at Tivoli in Copenhagen this season. The bullet points were intriguing: Tivoli’s largest ballet production ever, choreography by former RDB principal Peter Bo Bendixen, costumes and set designs by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and dancers from all over the world. When The Nutcracker is being performed alongside cabaret shows and family musicals, it may very well seem a lot less scary to many people. And maybe – just maybe – a dash of Gangnam Style is exactly what it takes to make children in the audience correlate classical ballet with adjectives like “cool” and “trendy”.
I approached this production with initial concerns: how do you stage a major classical production with a cast consisting mainly of freelance dancers combined with a handful of principals from big companies? While the freelance approach is not unusual at all in contemporary dance, it is a fact that classical ballets with a lot of corps de ballet work benefit from a certain uniformity of style and that this can only be achieved by a company that is used to taking class and rehearsing together. Quite simply; swans, sylphs and snowflakes need to be in sync.
I was intrigued, however, by the concept: the second act’s traditional Kingdom of Sweets had been tossed and replaced by a trip to the very place where it was being danced – Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. This twist also saw quite a few 19th century luminaries added to Clara’s family Christmas: Hans Christian Andersen and August Bournonville, as well as Tivoli’s former director Bernhard Olsen and his musical director Balduin Dahl – a bit of a Who’s Who from Copenhagen’s cultural elite at the time. I imagine H.C. Andersen would have been a fabulous Christmas guest, and of course, the first act saw him reading fairytales to Clara and her brother. I would have also been thrilled to welcome Bournonville to Christmas dinner, yet this production made him a look bit too eccentric: an old man constantly dancing around, trying out different steps while puffing away on his cigar – almost as if he were mocking ballet.
Things began well: the staging seemed lovely and quite traditional. One of my personal highlights was the wonderful Jette Buchwald as the maid – she displayed the perfect combination of affectionate devotion and understated cheekiness with a healthy dash of discipline. Buchwald was a character dancer with the RDB for many years and had previously lent her wonderful talent to such roles as Madge in La Sylphide and the nurse in John Neumeier’s Romeo & Juliet – seeing her on stage is always a true pleasure. But towards the end of the first act, my apprehension about the corps de ballet seemed justified. Let’s say that the snowflakes were not the most even group of dancers I have ever seen, though I am sure that for many members of the audience, the lack of sync was completely overshadowed by the shiny, silvery snowstorm of the dancers’s tutus. These were definitely innovative fairytale material.
The second act then took us to that Tivoli circa 1870 – a magic place that has always been one of Copenhagen’s most loved destinations for a family outing. And just like in The Kingdom of Sweets, dancers from all over the world joined Clara in her dream – with one tiny little change: the children’s roles that are often known as “pages”, were now lanterns. I found this to be a very clever idea because Tivoli is known for always being beautifully lit. But once the lanterns started dancing, we saw all the historical accuracy of 19th century Copenhagen vanish. Because their moves were very 21st century. In fact, they were 2012: the lanterns were dancing “Gangnam Style”. Asked about this very modern addition, choreographer Peter Bo Bendixen said: “It started as a silly idea during rehearsals, something that would give the children a shared frame of reference and something fun for them to do in rehearsal. Not all the participating children have a long history of dancing ballet, but they all loved the Gangnam Style and it created a relaxed and good atmosphere. So I decided to include it in the performance.”
The rest of the second act was less eventful. The music traditionally used for the Spanish dance was replaced with new music by Jesus Losada Albadia, and Flamenco dancer Selene Muñoz performed her own choreography to Albadia’s music. Of Danish and Spanish heritage, Muñoz has made it her mission to bring the cold blood of Scandinavia to a boil with her passionate dancing. She is doing a brilliant job, but however stunning her dancing was, I found it was hard to justify the omission of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score.
The Act II grand pas de deux was performed by another former RDB principal, Andrew Bowman, with Burnise Silvius, a principal with the South African Ballet Theatre, as his partner. While they both danced beautifully, Bowman seemed out of place: it was a joy to see him on stage in Copenhagen again, but Bowman is a statuesque dancer of international calibre who recently received raving reviews as Albrecht in Ethan Stiefel & Johan Kobborg’s production of Giselle. This particular stage simply wasn’t big enough for him. On top of that, the grand, traditional pas de deux format didn’t seem to gel with the rest of the evening.
So where does all this leave this new Nutcracker? Tivoli’s CEO Lars Liebst prefaces the programme by sharing his hopes for the production’s future: he wants it to become a Christmas tradition, something that families look forward to every year come December, like so many other Nutcrackers all over the world. While the production could be tighter and the dancing cannot quite match Royal Danish Ballet standards (those snowflakes do need to work on looking more uniform), this isn’t a Nutcracker without hope: it reminds us of the magic of ballet and of Clara’s enchanting dreams on Christmas Eve. Between the undeniable charm of Tivoli, the imaginative costumes and the very personal twist to that much loved story - who knows? – maybe Christmas 2013 will see the lanterns indulging in an all-new dance craze – one that we have yet to hear about.
About the Author:
Mette Windberg Baarup has a Master of Arts in Dance Studies and Communication & Arts Journalism from the University of Copenhagen. She is based in London where she works as a freelance writer and producer.