New Ballet's The San Jose Nutcracker Is Imaginative Fun
Among the many Nutcrackers performed every year, some have been tweaked to be locally relevant. San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, for example, is set in 1915 San Francisco. The New Ballet of San Jose has taken the local idea a step further and replaced some of the iconic Nutcracker characters with figures that have a local connection. The lavish, 1920s California Theatre in San Jose is a perfect setting for the New Ballet's version that takes place "a very long time ago" around the turn of the last century.
New Ballet's Nutcracker has the added benefit of a live orchestra, conducted by Thomas Shoebotham, and orchestral reduction of Nutcracker by John Longstaff. The cast was joined briefly by Los Lupeños Juvenil, a local folklórico dance company whose dancers range from 10 to 15 years old.
Preceding the performance Artistic Director Dalia Rawson welcomed the audience back to live performances following the pandemic shutdown, saying "It's been too long." The performance opened with a filmed presentation that explained the setting and displayed old photos of San Jose in earlier times, including shots of a tall, lighted tower.
When the curtain rises on Act I Clara, danced by Naomi Le, her brother Fritz, danced by Dylan Tobias, and an uncle are in a courtyard looking through an oversized book. Missing is the usual Christmas tree and decorations. Off in the distance is a tall, frame tower that is shaped like a Christmas Tree. Suddenly guests arrive with Uncle Nikola (Tesla), danced with convincing agility by Ty Danzl. Nicola waves his hands to turn on the house lights and the tower lights. The traditional dancing doll in this scene has a long electric cord. Uncle Nikola gives Clara the Nutcracker, which is not electrified.
In Clara's dream, the ensuing confrontation between the toy soldiers and the mice departs from the traditional battle scene. There are no rifles or canon or swords. The program describes the confrontation as a contest, but it's difficult to see from the action what that is about. The program does explain the reason for the enmity, having to do with the mouse leader Mousima stealing a magic crown that turned the Prince into the Nutcracker. This was an explanation I hadn't seen before, and it gave form to the story.
Act II takes place in The Valley of Heart's Delight, an early name for Santa Clara County's orchards of fruit and nut trees. The main characters, such as the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy, retain their traditional identities, but many characters sport agricultural names. Mother Ginger is named for Casa de Fruta, the prominent fruit store on Rt. 101 in Gilroy. Performed by special guest artist Woowoo Monroe, the stage name of local drag artist George Downes, Casa de Fruta looks and acts like Mother Ginger in other productions, with children emerging from her enormous skirts.
Other local adaptations include a scene in which a dancer emerges from a cart instead of from an Aladdin's lamp. In place of the Chinese dancers, a lone dancer appears out of a giant walnut. These are creative adaptations, but sometimes the identity of each character listed in the cast sheet was not obvious. And maybe more could be done with them. Could Casa de Fruta's costume have included fruit? Could the Walnut have been opened by the Nutcracker?
The New Ballet is a ballet school as well as a professional company. As with all ballet schools that perform Nutcracker, many roles are danced by students whose different levels of skill may make for uneven performances. But these dancers were well organized and choreographed. For example, the many Flowers of various types were all well synchronized and coordinated onstage with impressive effect.
The program lists 16 Featured Artists, but without descriptions, it's impossible to know whether any one of them is considered a member of the professional Company, the Studio Company, or is an advanced student. Some deserve mention. Naomi Le was a charming Clara and skilled dancer. The pas de deux with Yuzuka Fuchinoue, as the Sugarplum Fairy, and Ryan Cheng, as the Nutcracker Prince, was graceful and elegant, showing off Fuchinoue's arabesques. Cheng's powerful tournees got the applause they deserved. And Uncle Nikola, danced by Ty Danzl, showed deft footwork and the best lifts of the evening. I wish I could identify the grey-haired tap dancer in Act I. Unusual for a Nutcracker, tap steps fit the score perfectly and were surprisingly appropriate.
In spite of any minor criticisms, Nutcrackers are made to be fun, after all, and not to make sense. The New Ballet's creative version is definitely fun for audiences and cast alike.
The New Ballet's Nutcracker runs through December 22nd. For more information see www.newballet.com.