by Emma Elsmo for The Dance Journal
As holiday spirit continues to snowball, it’s hard to deny the desire for sugarplum fairies and nutcracker princes. With innumerable iterations of Marius Petipa’s traditional ballet The Nutcracker, it’s become difficult to find contemporary interpretations of the Christmas classic. ContempraDANCE Theatre found a way to metamorphizes the ballet from tutus and toe-shoes to sweatshirts and sneakers in Gail Vartanian’s Philly Nutt Crak-Up.
In contrast to the original full-length work, Vartanian tackled a Philadelphia tailored rendition of the Nutcracker. From switches like Clara to Liberty Belle Anne and Drosselmeyer to Uncle Franklin Rosselmeyer, the delightfully colorful and playfully soundtracked two-hour work connected with the audience in a personal manner as well as through city-pride. Based on a creative Philly themed rap, the Philly Nutt Crak-Up added humor, love, hip-hop, and jazz to a typically delicate and graceful ballet. With a cast of 14 professionals mixed with younger dancers from the ContempraDANCE School, the audience was comprised of most families and young children for the Sunday matinee.
The classical twinkle of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Overture” immediately places one into the opening party scene, only to be surprised by a rapping Sugarplum Fairy. Further bewilderment ensued as pajama-clad, slumber partying girls ran onto the stage rather than the gown adoring party guests one is usually greeted by. The switch from ball to the party is further enhanced by the usage of Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and jazz-infused choreography. The continued modernization mixed together 20th and 21st-century icons as inspiration for the dolls, and hyper fun music. However, it was the complex and hard-hitting hip-hop crew of Railway Rats that made this show sparkle. Through intense and death-defying lifts, the rats danced and battled their way to the snow scene with intriguing choreography and resounding applause.
While glowing snowflakes danced their way through Liberty Belle Anne’s dreams and the Sugarplum Fairy’s continued rap, the first half of the show closed quickly and on a curious note only to be reinvigorated by the introduction of the Kingdom of Prussia. While I found the story harder to track in the second act, the usage of younger dancers and professional dancers was endearing and undeniably smile-inducing. The collection of characters the filled the Kingdom of Prussia ranged from Penn’s Angels to the South St. Rocky-ettes, and the music paired perfectly with each rendition of the traditional Land of Sweets cast. However, the over-the-top usage of “Once Upon A Dream,” paired with the repetitive duet choreography left more to be desired in the romance aspect of the story, yet the dancers tackled it with perceptible passion and vigor.
While the show seemed targeted to a younger demographic, it’s hard to deny Gail Vartanian has an active imagination and intimate familiarity with Philadelphia. She has an individualized take on the standard Nutcracker fantasy, and I appreciate her fervor to create something new and lively. The Philly Nutt Crak-Up left the audience laughing and applauding with hints of snowflakes twirling and Sugarplum Fairies rapping in their glittering eyes.