t’s a Wonderful Nutcracker Review - The Americanization of a Classic Ballet

The Menlowe Ballet performs the 2nd year of its innovative interpretation of  the It’s a Wonderful Nutcracker at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center.  Choreographer Michael Lowe has integrated  the theme  of  Frank Capra’s  Christmas classic motion picture A Wonderful Life---that  love and family reunion are more important than money or Christmas gifts--- giving  new meaning to the Nutcracker,  by  making   the motion picture’s theme, the transcendence of family ties over material success, into the ballet’s inspiration. Reset in 1940 Bedford Falls at the cusp of the end of America’s isolationist era, the panoply of international dance scenes, exemplifying various cultures, from English chimney sweeps to a French artist take on a new meaning as American soldiers were about to encounter the reality behind these cultural clichés as they spread throughout the globe after the attack at Pearl Harbor.


The action begins with ice skaters dancing in  the background, tossing an occasional snowball, as a taxi driver bids farewell to his passenger, leaving him and his suitcase at a park bench, in the foreground. George Bailey Drosselmeyer has returned home, carrying an empty suitcase, after a failed grand tour as magician and performer.  He is too ashamed to show himself to his young relatives who are swirling on ice and shrivels on the park bench, trying to make himself inconspicuous. The opening scene dissolves as day changes to night, a man sitting on a park bench, a Salvation Army worker tending her kettle down the street, a female passer by gives a coin to her son to give to the poor man on the bench. George, in turn, places the coin in the Army kettle, returns to the bench, falls asleep and dreams. The Salvation Army worker sheds her cape, revealing white ballet costume and angel wings and she twirls. A freight sled appears, filled with gift packages. George is coming home as he wished he could. The Bailey home and family welcome George with loving kisses and joyous dance. He falls asleep again; a sleep within the dream and the Nutcracker magic begins.


A line of mice appears and soon a snow Jazz dance and swing interrupt classical ballet. Duke Ellington and Jimmy Dorsey have joined Piotr Illich Tshaikovsky, introducing jazz and swing time into the musical mélange along with the opening sequence of a Chinese ballet. Ballroom dancing insinuates itself into this ballet, providing some of its handsomest moments. As the two principals swirl with supple elegance, ballroom overtakes ballet in this hybrid performance. The classic ballet sequences,  always beautiful in their symmetry are simply not as exciting as the ballroom and jazz dance interruptions. May Menlowe continue its Nutcracker renovation and increase the percentage of new to old?  Modern dance could bring the snowflake sequence to an even greater height of abstraction and point, reimagined  Martha Graham style.


The Menlowe Nutcracker takes tentative steps  to broadening  a 19th century vision of the nation state into a  more inclusive framework. The family identity of the Bailey’s rooted in a small town America is turned in a dream sequence into a stream of national identities melding into each other as one national dance style turns into another and then returns to the family setting with a new insight. The tall ringmaster in scarlet and black, leaping high, is the highlight of the national dance sequence in Act II. The procession of dance and musical styles follow in rapid succession against a surreal backdrop of  a world map with four quadrants and fanciful sea creatures swimming off the continents. The sequence integrates different nations’ traditional music , clothes and dances,  making much sense in the San Fransisco Bay Area,  with its considerable immigrant populations. The Asian contribtion is enhanced with the addition of the North Wind Blows and Tie Red String pieces from a Chinese Ballet Movie, the White Haired  Girl. Would that  the reprise  of national identities be reimagined from a sequence of national flags into  broader identities  with European Union and United Nations flags?


Menlowe Ballet offers a wonderful Nutcracker, not only in execution but also in conception. Just as Prokofieff’s Peter in the Wolf introduces children to the instruments and sounds of classical music, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker does the same for the ballet and even more.  It has meaning in Ballet education, to train the young generations through enrolling more little and young dancers by providing numerous roles in the performance for the next generations,  from the very young mice to the tween circus animals.


The regular Nutcracker is everywhere: go see for yourself Menlowe Ballets very special multi-media version of this holiday entertainment. As Menlowe’s Executive Director Lisa Shively reminded the audience as the performance began, the Nutcracker is best appreciated in the company of family and loved ones: its message of close ties trumping worldly achievement is filmmaker Frank Capra’s contribution to the Nutcracker experience via choreographer Michael Lowe’s mash-up. We look forward to further enhancement of the traditional tale in next year’s iteration. Just as the physical nutcracker has evolved from a stone to wooden sticks tied together by a leather strap to woodcarvings, taking the form of animal and human likenesses; so may the ballet Nutcracker. 










Photos: Courtesy of Menlowe Ballet

More information at the Menlowe Ballet website


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