By Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal
Photo by Robert Smee | Dancers: Kristin Edwards and Eric Churn
What does the Philly Cheesesteak, Rocky, and The Liberty Bell all have in common? Philly Nutt Crak-Up!
Wrapped up and presented at The Painted Bride on Sunday December 7th, ContempraDANCE Theatre Company offered a novel version of The Nutcracker.
Joining a line of choreographers who have created their own version of the Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s ballet of 1892, artistic director Gail Vartanian, fused classical ballet with hip-hop, jazz, funk, tap, and contemporary modern, to display an innovative story, paying tribute to all things Philadelphia.
A Christmas tree and four wrapped boxes set the scene for Tchaikovsky’s prologue. Ten girls entered the stage in pajamas and headed directly towards the Christmas tree.
Kristen Edwards glided on the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Wearing a white classical tutu and a tiara, Edwards performed her variation to “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the Tchaikovsky score.
A change in music transformed Edwards from a ballerina into a rapper. She was the MC; the narrator.
This juxtaposition served as the cauldron in which a vivid representation of one of the most popular ballets of all times would live. Choreographed by Gail Vartanian, Railway Rats battled City Hall Dolls, City Cheesesteak Guy fought for the affection of Liberty Belle Anne, and Uncle Franklin Rosselmeyer worked desperately to keep them apart.
Vartanian was very successful when she created a well-composed duet between City Cheesesteak Guy played by Rimaj Todd and Liberty Belle Anne played by Stephanie Vasta. As if watching a video in slow motion, both dancers moved towards each other with a sustained quality. This effect added tension to the scene by lengthening the duration of the action, keeping the audience engaged. Vasta lit up the stage with her dynamic performance quality and energetic display of technique. With a supple spine and muscled facility, she transforms the Liberty Belle Anne’s version of Clara into a crush induced teenage girl. Vasta, a 9-year veteran of the company, delivered a solid performance. Her experience was obvious when she seamlessly combined her tilts, aerials and arabesques, with her theatrical flair.
ContempraDANCE Theatre got it right when they refocused the story to include a more hip-hop sensibility. Michael Nguyen, Shane Pettway Jr., Andrew Thomas, and Eric Wood stayed true to the element of hip-hop that focused on performance. They thrived on their connection to each other and subsequently, their connection to the audience.
The Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition for many families. A few contemporary choreographers have taken the story of Clara and the Prince, turning it into a more contemporary and culturally relevant work. Mark Morris’ Hard Nut and Donald Byrd’s The Harlem Nutcracker, are perfect examples of such recreations, dealing with gender fluidity and African American history respectively.
Philly Nutt Crak-Up stayed true to the title. From the choreographed hyper feminized gestures of the B-boys to the overtly campy displays of Captain Philadelphia and Liberty Belle Anne, Philly Nutt Crak-Up was another flower in the bouquet of Nutcrackers we will encounter this season.
The Philadelphia references connected the audience to their city and the whimsical storyline left the audience uplifted, especially in the wake of protests happening throughout the nation as a result of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. Sometimes we all need a good laugh and Philly Nutt Crak-Up offered just that.