DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, MI; December 20, 2014

Rebecca Williams Jackson

If you want to take your daughter to a paternalistic rendering of the Nutcracker in which Clara’s role is nothing more than a “distraction” (as Grand Rapids Ballet’s program puts it), then this new imagining of “The Nutcracker” is for you.

Under the direction of Artistic Director, Patricia Barker, the new Grand Rapids Ballet production features the creative vision of Chris Van Allsburg (author of “The Polar Express”, “Zathura”, “Jumanji” and other classics) and Eugene Lee (Tony Award winner for set design of “Candide”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Wicked”. Choreography is by Val Caniparoli.

In short, their version portrays a Clara (here danced by Hanna Schenck as a child and Yuka Oba as an adult) who is disempowered. Nowhere is the male-dominated approach more evident than its exposition of her as nothing more than a prop for the male characters, to be important only when she acts as ornamentation or a trophy for the male Nutcracker.

The child Clara is only showcased dancing with her brother’s annoying habits; the brother whose behavior is so distracting as to detract from her performance. It’s not that the brother plays his part badly, rather that it is inexpertly interpreted to be the showcase role in the Christmas gift scene. It is overly written, almost hyperbole. The audience is perfectly capable of understanding sibling rivalry when it happens once or twice, but the enactment occurs four different times, and the scene moves from a focus on Clara to a focus on her brother because of it.

Even in her own dreams, Clara remains impotent. She no longer kills the Mouse King with her slipper – an act of empowerment – the Nutcracker does that. In a most telling description of the role she plays in production, the plot description in the program describes her as the “distraction” in the scene.

While other commentators state that Clara “grows up,” referring to her partnering with the Nutcracker in a sexual way, or perhaps tamely, a romantic way, this is only true if for a girl growing up means nothing more than serving as an ornament to her male partner, which is the current exposition of Clara in this Nutcracker. As a mother of a teenaged daughter, I am always dismayed when a girl, who supposedly only dreams of being a Nutcracker Prince’s property in a sexualized adult ensemble, becomes nothing more than a male plaything, but this is the role assigned to Clara in the Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2014 “Nutcracker”. Clara even changes clothes, from a little girl’s night dress, to a more revealing dress, and finally to a miniscule tutu wardrobe to signify her move from a young girl dreaming of Christmas to the equivalent of Clara losing her virginity vis a vis a costume change. To say this is disturbing is putting it mildly.

It is too bad that Clara is literally made into a plaything for the male characters when it is the Nutcracker that is the toy, and will still be so in the morning. I am disappointed that Clara’s character is disempowered, disappointed that Drosselmeyer serves as no more than a male hand-off to deliver her to the Nutcracker, and disappointed that the gorgeously designed sets are used to display a distressing amount of patriarchal attitude toward the female characters that I would not recommend.

Sure, it sounds harmless enough: Clara goes to sleep and wakes up married, but in all reality, that is not the dream that I believe is appropriate to portray for a 12-year old girl’s character, to have her go to sleep a child and dream of consummating a romantic relationship as a much older woman. That sort of dream is projection of a male fantasy onto a young girl, and as such, is disgusting. Most twelve year old girls don’t dream of getting married, and their sole dream at Christmas is not to marry a Nutcracker. Why couldn’t Clara experience the dances, the beauty of this dream state as a child? Why does Clara have to embody an adult woman who changes into progressively smaller and more sexualized costumes as she moves closer and closer to her male star?

The reinvention of the sets by Van Allsburg and Lee is gorgeous. The mechanics of the light projections and the new scrims are magical. The audience really is transported to the size of mice. The children play a much smaller role in this production, which detracts from the local flavor of the ballet, but is most likely in keeping with a desire to tour the production (most children will be unlikely able to tour). But what is really evident is that the production has moved from a local story, with local production, to an anonymous epithet indicative of any other professional ballet company, and its financial insecurity, managing to massacre a little girl’s Christmas dream in the process. I can’t watch the production without taking on that sense behind it, one that must also produce moans about how the company will handle the cost.

I can just see this financial dilemma play out, along with its answer: give Ballet Master Attila Mosolygo a supposedly larger role as Drosselmeyer (which I watched for and didn’t see, to my disappointment he serves only as the delivery vehicle to Clara’s completion as the Nutcracker’s toy), make Clara’s role that of an adult woman able to tour to bring in revenue, eliminate the children’s parts, and use choreography that lacks local flavor so as to hopefully appeal to different audiences who are used to less plot development and more of a focus on each dance as a separate number rather than a plot exposition device.

Caniparoli’s choreography reflects this toned down version of “The Nutcracker”, with a ho-hum focus on the fouetté turn, as the measure of a dancer’s worth, and a second act focusing on the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (performed by Dawnell Dryja) that borders on boring. In fact, one of the people sitting next to me said that they thought, with the final dance, that they had watched it four times already. There is also a total waste of a good number of crescendos. While some choreographers feel that acknowledging musical trills is a sign of pedestrian choreography, Caniparoli’s complete disregard for musical change makes for rather boring dance – where is the surprise? Where is the human element of playing with the music that brings a character alive, as opposed to a dancer just performing a number? The sense of play is missing.

Gorgeous sets and effects can support a number, but they can’t make up for the elimination of the main character, Clara, that my daughter and I want to see. What girl or woman doesn’t want to have a Christmas dream of a magical world of dance, of snow, of beauty and interesting characters? That is the wonder of the dream, but it seems that wonder has been lost to the financial focus of this year’s production, and none is the worse for the wear for it than Clara, and little girls everywhere who want Christmas dreams of beauty and childhood innocence. We can only hope those aren’t lost forever for the little girls who follow the Grand Rapids Ballet Company.