Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" is an indisputable rite of the holiday season. Every year, its decadent orchestral suite graces shopping malls, street corners, stages, and living rooms, cuing a barrage of gift giving and merriment. The accompanying ballet is usually a gold-and-tinsel affair, recognizable for its dreamlike sets, elaborate costumes, and Old World sensibilities. Can we still hear the music of "The Nutcracker" underneath all these layers of nostalgia? David Parker, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow and master choreographer, explores that question in "Nut/Cracked," which will be performed by The Bang Group at Bard's Fisher Center on December 20 and 21.
"Nut/Cracked" dances along the rhythmic spine of Tchaikovsky's score, combining tap, ballet, modern, and percussive forms. It's a minimalist take on the original, or, in Parker's words, "a do-it-yourself 'The Nutcracker'" that "really belongs to New York and its world." Relying only on moveable props, funny nods to tradition, and contemporary experimentation, "Nut/Cracked" has enough creative pluckiness to reawaken the holiday spirit.
Alongside Tchaikovsky's classical pieces, Parker includes arrangements by Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington, as well as a few novelty songs. In another decidedly eclectic move, he abandons the familiar narrative and characters of "The Nutcracker" in favor of a "series of dances that represent the gifts, or suites, from around the world." The result? An honest, irreverent take on the holiday season. Parker explains, "The production deals with elements of Christmas-like greed and competition for presents, and that lustfulness about eating or drinking too much."
Parker navigates the challenges of adaptation with humor and consideration. "There are all of these ethnic stereotypes in traditional productions of 'The Nutcracker,'" he says. "The Chinese section is a hard one to deal with. I was faced with the question of how to treat the music without including those [stereotypes], when there is something Chinese-sounding about it to Western ears. So what I do is I eat an endless, single Chinese noodle while I balance en pointe. It's kind of a New York cliché mixed with the memory of the Chinese tea dance from the 'The Nutcracker.'"
Since its debut in 2003, "Nut/Cracked" has expanded its running time from 40 minutes to over an hour. Parker regularly switches the genders of his characters in order to maximize comedic effect and complicate interpretations of his choreography. Every year, "Nut/Cracked" incorporates a new group of student dancers that gives the production a renewed sense of playfulness.
David Parker teaches dance composition at The Juilliard School, Barnard College, Princeton University, and the Alvin Ailey School. He has created commissioned works for New York Live Arts, the Sokolow Theater Dance Ensemble, DanceNow/NYC, and many others. Parker is an alumnus of Bard College, where he studied modern, postmodern, and classical forms of dance.
The Bang Group, established in 2000, is the brainchild of Parker and current co-director Jeffrey Kazin. It grew out of a shared wish to dissolve the boundaries between different styles of dance. According to Parker, an ongoing goal of the project is to develop a movement language that overtly translates rhythm to audiences. In keeping with its name, The Bang Group uses a variety of improvised sounds. (Think bubble wrap, Velcro, and tapping pointe shoes). "I try to create a dynamic, sometimes even confrontational, relationship between dance and music. The sounds that the dancers make are part of the musical score, but not necessarily dictated by the musical score."
David Parker and The Bang Group will perform "Nut/Cracked" at the Richard B. Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson on December 20 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 2pm. Tickets are $25-$45. (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu.