Monday, December 13, 2010

Home for the holidays

The Snow Queen and King do their traditional thing in the Urban Nutcracker.  Photo: Peter Metlicka.
A traditional dance critic would feel a little silly trying to criticize the Urban Nutcracker (at Wheelock Family Theatre through December 19), as in a way it's traditional-critic-proof. This Nutcracker (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary) aims to be a loose and funky community riff on the whitebread blockbuster that plays downtown, and that's exactly what it is: part tribute and part parody, and diversified to the max - when break dancing mixes with Bollywood and doo-wop, as it does in the opening scene, you know everyone is welcome in this holiday 'hood.

Although traditional-white-bread-guy that I am, I sometimes wished the show had pushed its conceptual envelope further. Its central idea - to plant the Nutcracker squarely in a vibrant urban milieu - is a great one, and musically the show is at its most convincing when it trades the Tchaikovsky original for Duke Ellington's jazzy re-stylings of its familiar themes (all the music is recorded). Dance-wise, however, creator/choreographer Anthony Williams hasn't fully imagined what jazz-en-pointe might look like; his Sugar Plum Fairy, the statuesque Janelle Gilchrist, gets a few funky shrugs and shakes her tail-feather a little, but we don't sense the kind of wholesale re-invention here that we felt in say, the brilliant hip-hop re-tooling of The Sound of Music into Fräulein Maria.

Of course this is partly because Williams wants to have a little fun with the Nutcracker and at the same time enshrine it as a cultural icon that kids of color can feel belongs to them, too. Which is fine. And Williams' company, BalletRox, can mostly deliver those goods - although frankly Boston Ballet doesn't need to worry about the competition: extensions weren't always what they should be, and a few lifts looked wobbly. Surprisingly, Williams' secret weapons are two of his men - Darwin Black and Gerald Watson, who have charisma and power to spare; but there was also a sparkling turn from Harumi Elders as "Rox Riff," who shepherded a bevy of kids on bouncing beach balls, and a lot of appealing moments from Yo-el Cassel, Cjaiilon “Snap2” Andrade, Katie Pustizzi and Rick Ives.

It was in the inspired, go-for-it numbers with hula hoops, or the street rumble with the rats (here definitely rats, not mice), that Urban Nutcracker came into its own. Set and costume designer Rebecca Cross was behind a lot of these high points: when the ballerinas came out in camouflage, en pointe, brandishing boxing gloves, to do battle with the rambunctious rodents, you felt the whole show somehow come together. There was also a genuine sense of kid-friendly frolic in evidence that the downtown Nutcracker kind of suppresses - during the party scene, for instance, the little girls on its fringe were doing frisky dances of their own, just like normal kids do, which only made the scene feel more like a real party - which pretty young Mikaila Wright (as "Clarice") presided over with confident grace. Librettist David Ira Rottenberg even brought a bit of real-world grit to this big, bright fantasia - in the Urban Nutcracker, Clarice has a brother serving in Iraq (and tellingly, her protective Cavalier looks just like him). How many Claras in Weston and Wellesley could say the same thing? Not many. Needless to say, his joyous holiday homecoming brought this Nutcracker to an unexpectedly moving close.

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