By Steve Sucato
As holiday traditions go, The Nutcracker ballet ranks among this country’s most well known. German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale reworked by French writer Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) into the saccharine version we know about the fantastical adventure to faraway lands of young girl with her beloved Nutcracker doll come to life, is one that has entertained audiences and sparked the imagination of young children for decades.
Memorable characters such as uncle Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy and of course Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart…wait…what…Bogie and Bacall? That’s right, in Northeast Ohio’s Neos Dance Theatre’s 1940’s Nutcracker the Hollywood stars are just a few of the unusual characters to appear in this unique, regionally-flavored production.
Perhaps the most re-interpreted ballet story in history, there are hundreds of versions of The Nutcracker at all levels from dance school productions to million dollar-plus extravaganza’s to choose from each holiday season across the country.
For choreographer and founding artistic director of Neos, Robert Wesner, the idea for a Nutcracker set in the 1940’s came from his having performed various versions of the ballet upwards of a thousand times in his dance career and feeling he could improve on it.
“For me, I always felt the first and second acts of the ballet [as they are done traditionally] lacked a through line,” says Wesner. “I wanted better storytelling and a fuller representation of the main character’s journey.”
Wesner says in thinking about his vision for a Nutcracker production he began to look at how we as a culture [in the U.S.] celebrate Christmas. “I feel as though our conceptions of the holiday are pretty rooted in old Christmas-themed movies from the 1940’s such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Wesner. “What really sealed the deal for me that this concept could work for a Nutcracker production was the time period was within arm’s reach of the memory of a lot of audience members.”
Currently there are three different versions of Neos’ 2-hour 1940’s Nutcracker specific to regions in northern Ohio. This year the company will perform two of them with a cast of upwards of fifty dancers. The first, at the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio December 8 & 9 is themed to Richland County circa the 1940s. The second, December 14-16 at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center in Elyria is themed to Lorain County during that period.
While the dance elements for each version and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet are basically the same in each, the video backdrops used in the ballet gleaned from historical photos and imagery specific to each region changes.
“The experience for an audience member to be able to look at their own history and see a bit of themselves in it is impactful,” says Wesner.
With this approach Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker not only seeks to deliver the magic of the Nutcracker story to its younger audience members, but also a familiarity and sense of nostalgia for those members young at heart.
Neos’ Nutcracker maintains the ballet’s familiar structure in telling the dreamstate story of young Marie (Clara in other productions) adventures and budding romance. Where it most differs from others is in its substitution of familiar characters from the original with those from the 1940’s. Johnny, Maries’ next door neighbor becomes the Nutcracker Prince, Bogie and Bacall take the place of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Marie’s WWII soldier father becomes Drosselmeyer and Mae West and Rosie the Riveter make appearances in the place of other second act characters.
In a holiday landscape littered with cookie-cutter Nutcracker productions, Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker is a wonderfully refreshing change for those seeking something different without giving up any of the charm and magic the Nutcracker story carries with it.
Neos Dance Theatre performs 1940’s Nutcracker:
8 p.m., Saturday, December 8 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 9 at the Renaissance Theatre, 138 Park Avenue West, Mansfield, Ohio. Tickets are $15-50 (Veterans with valid IDs are eligible for two free tickets for either performance when reserved in advance at the Renaissance box office). To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, mansfieldtickets.com or call (419) 522-2726.
11 a.m., Friday, December 14 (Student Matinee), 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 16. Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center – Hoke Theatre, 1005 N Abbe Rd, Elyria, Ohio. Tickets are $5-35. To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, lorainccc/stocker.edu or call (440) 366-4040.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.