IMPRESSIONS: "The Nutcracker" by Troy Schumacher's BalletCollective at Wethersfield
December 11, 2020
Choreography, Concept, and Direction: Troy Schumacher // Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Darian Thomas // Violin: Lauren Cauley
Lighting Design: John Cuff // Costume Consultant: Marc Happel // Scenic Painting: Sara Nesbitt
Dancers: Tyler Angle (Cavalier); Eliza Blutt (Flowers); Gabriella Domini; Savannah Durham; Sasonah Huttenbach; Ralph Ippolito (Hot Chocolate); Ashley Laracey (Sugar Plum); Malorie Lindgren; Mary Thomas Mackinnon (Hot Chocolate); Miriam Miller (Flowers); Mira Nadon (Dew Drop); Erica Pereira (Clara); Davide Riccardo (Mouse King); Kristen Segin (Marzipan); Mary Elizabeth Sell (Hostess); Mimi Staker (Marzipan); Taylor Stanley (Host); KJ Takahashi (Fritz/The Nutcracker); Claire Von Enck; Emma Von Enck (Female Doll/Marzipan); Cainan Weber (Male Doll/Candy Cane); Julio Bragado Young (Drosselmeyer).
Special Twitch livestream on Sunday, December 20th at 5 p.m. On-demand livestream available December 23 at 5 p.m. through December 26 at midnight. More information HERE.
Is it still Christmas without The Nutcracker?
Maybe so, but for thousands of American children and for the audiences who have welcomed this annual pageant into their hearts, the holidays just aren’t the same without it.
Fortunately, not all our artists are supine. Choreographer Troy Schumacher has an enterprising spirit; and in the midst of this “dark winter” he has found a way to salvage The Nutcracker, or at least save part of it, by translating it into The Nutcracker at Wethersfield, a site-specific production at the Wethersfield Estate in Amenia, NY.
Like a defeated general, temporarily bested but resolved to fight again, Schumacher has retreated into the countryside trailing in his wake a band of storybook refugees: dispossessed Snowflakes, homeless Sugar Plums, and a reduced yet cheerful corps of Flowers. Those Nutcracker Flowers are unable to wilt; their lives are a perpetual Springtime. Under the banner of BalletCollective, this group has produced a makeshift Nutcracker-in-exile adapted to Lockdown restrictions. The Nutcracker’s child performers are grievously missed, and attendance is limited to donors and invited guests. Yet this mini-extravaganza offers a secret store of hope, and will bring joy to all who make their way to Amenia.
Getting there is not easy, however, so it’s just as well the production will be broadcast free to all from December 23-26, 2020. The better to isolate his cast from Covid, Schumacher has gone through the trees to Grandmother’s house in a big way. The Wethersfield estate is to be found, eventually, in what might be called the upper depths of Duchess County, amid a maze of horse-trails and dark and lonely roads. Once visitors arrive, audience wranglers greet them warmly and offer face-masks. Schumacher’s voice comes over the car radio—a bit of magic worthy of Herr Drosselmeyer—describing safety precautions and laying down the rules. The outhouse toilet is only for emergencies, so don’t get any ideas.
Soon we are assembled in socially distanced pods before the mansion’s wreathe-hung and candle-lit façade, listening to Tchaikovsky’s romping overture. When the door swings open, our hosts, Herr Stahlbaum and his Frau, welcome each pod of guests with courtly flourishes. Their rambunctious offspring, Clara and Fritz, burst in suddenly and threaten to topple their parents.
Inside the sanctum where the Christmas tree glows, visitors collect along the paneled walls of a drawing room while the Stahlbaums play and open gifts. Audience members substitute for party guests; but the Grossvatertanz pantomime is ominously absent. Were Grandpa and Grandma the victims of a Nursing Home purge? In any case, Schumacher has re-imagined the party scene for a nuclear family; and dancers Taylor Stanley, Mary Elizabeth Sell, KJ Takahashi, and Erica Pereira keep it lively.
A knock at the door heralds the arrival of a youthful but befuddled Herr Drosselmeyer, the outstanding Julio Bragado-Young. He produces the usual dolls, a mechanical Harlequine who warms up with alarming hesitancy (will she start, or won’t she?), and a sturdy infantryman who goes haywire. Then the prize: a little Nutcracker doll for Clara to waltz with, before brother Fritz tears off its head. Drosselmeyer bathes the repaired toy in light from a magic bauble; and, before you know it, another Christmas party has ended.
We think we know what’s coming next, but Schumacher has a surprise for us. Our guides escort us into the Wethersfield’s treasure-house, the Gloriette, a frescoed gallery decorated with Renaissance paintings, marble statues, and other items not from Pottery Barn. Here we pause to listen, bowing in obeisance to Tchaikovsky as violinist Lauren Cauley performs a riff (with weird echoes) on the Nutcracker score, especially the sweet cadenza that George Balanchine incorporated into his Nutcracker production. How many times on how many winter evenings has this music calmed our souls, and filled an audience of thousands with bemused wonder? Let us rejoice, with gratitude!
The Transformation scene itself misfires, however, since by now we have gathered outside on the lawn, and must observe the indoor action through windows that offer a limited view. Inside, a murine commotion increases in vigor, but before furry raiders can carry off the Pontormo in the gallery, the Mouse King appears threateningly on the lawn beside us. Quickly, the Nutcracker subdues him with a thrust of his thrusty sword. Did Clara intervene? It’s so important that she does. Yet all I can see is Pereira waving farewell, from inside the house, as the Nutcracker leads us to our next adventure.
The following scene takes place on a landscaped hillock, on the far side of a pond. Five thermally clad Snow Maidens, with tulle overskirts adding another layer, cavort on the grass in dance sneakers. Gloved hands coyly pillow their tilted heads. They fly in temps levé jumps; and pull up sharply, as if suddenly frozen and turned to icicles. These Maidens are just a flurry, not a blizzard, but suddenly the air feels chill.
Following an illuminated garden path, we now enter a large tent, with a stage in the center where characters from the second-act divertissement are circulating. The scene dazzles. Each pod of visitors has its own table, laden with plastic pâtisserie, brightly dyed cakes and tarts.
Less impressive than the counterfeit confectionery is Schumacher’s re-imagined Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This number begs the question why anyone (including Balanchine) ever thought to improve upon the famous original choreographed by Lev Ivanov. In Schumacher’s version, a contrast between sharp and gentle movements, an arrowlike Russian pas de chat versus softly fading arabesques, keeps the thing alive. His choreography seems disjointed, however, with no thought given to the delicacy of the celesta accompaniment. Evidently this sound is no longer a novelty; yet it still calls for a type of virtuosity focused on small, punctilious steps. What saves the Sugar Plum solo on this occasion is its performance by Ashley Laracey, a dancer of rare imagination and sensitivity. She feels the music; and when she scatters fairy dust from the end of her wand, we are genuinely blessed.
The other divertissements (minus Tea and Coffee) are standard-issue. The Spanish couple toss their heads and flaunt their passions. Three Marzipan shepherdesses exaggerate their fragility, without worrying us that they might actually break. The Candy Cane twists in the air and jumps through his hoop. It’s exciting to sit in the same room with them, but not overwhelming until the Flowers reappear.
Oh, those Flowers! Glossy in the stage lights, in flaming skirts of red and mauve, they appear supernaturally beautiful. They sway in the waltzy breeze; seem to banter in opposing groups; and line up to form ruffled corridors that glorify the passage of Dew Drop. While the Flowers are easy-going, Dew Drop is all energy. Mira Nadon dashes around the periphery with great leaps or piqué turns, and pierces to the center, which she stirs with lashing fouettés. It’s floral Nirvana.
The Grand Pas de Deux is also truly grand. This is the moment to pull out all the stops, and Laracey and her partner, Tyler Angle, oblige us. The duet has its romantic moments. As Laracey bourrées toward him, they push against each other’s hands, playing balletic patty-cake. But then they get down to business, and she turns into a spinning projectile before he catches her in a “fish.” Can we see that again? You bet!
Angle is a fine partner, but that’s not all. This simpático young man has a knowing musicality. In his solo, he produces a wonderful effect (not to be over-used) with suspenseful pauses, elongating a phrase deliciously before plunging back into the musical current.
Now it’s time to say good-bye, and the remaining inhabitants of Confiturembourg rush back on stage, eager to see us off as usual. They’re such a happy, tail-wagging bunch. It’s almost possible to believe—but, no. Heading home, the darkness descends once more.
Farewell, dear Nutcracker! Let’s hope this is only au revoir.