Friday, December 19, 2003

Shaking the tree: Nutcracker Burlesque brings holiday cheer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Few production groups are brave enough to put their rehearsal schedules on the Internet. Fewer still go into brutally honest detail about what will be covered in each rehearsal. The Nutcracker Burlesque crew has done both, specifying scenes to be worked on for several weeks, and then, leading up to tech week, describing in a single word the events of each night’s practice: "panic."

There was, however, little actual panic at a recent practice session, in which dancers tried on their handmade costumes — these performers are also brilliant with needle and thread — and got their groove on for an adaptation of The Nutcracker unlike any other.

Ellen Joyce and Brigitte Paulus, friends since high school, grew up dancing in the annual traditional Nutcracker performance, like every other kid who took dance classes through the holiday season.

Over time, they came to wonder, "what else could we do with this show?" Joyce says. They had talked about a burlesque version, using the style that has become popular recently, reaching wide audiences with movies like Moulin Rouge and Chicago.

They had seen shows in New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, and thought it would be fun to put on a flashy, curvy show in Portland.

Last spring, when both were involved in Two Lights Theater Company’s dance performance Heroine’s Journey, they saw an independent production could be done and decided to go for it, adapting The Nutcracker into a show that would be "a nice entertaining break" from holiday stresses, and add something to the local holiday performance circuit.

"The Nutcracker really invites interpretation because of that second act that’s kind of like a variety show," Joyce says. And rather than use Tchaikovsky’s European-slanted compositions of various ethnic musical traditions, they thought, "wouldn’t it be fun to do a Nutcracker where the regional pieces are authentic?"

The original gave them a good jumping-off point for this production, which departs from the narrative story at the outset. Most notable is the lack of children on stage. It’s a burlesque, which includes comic skits, what some might call "ribald" dancing, and suggestive body language used in a comic way. They didn’t want kids involved, and don’t want kids in the audience, either.

Still, "it’s comic almost above everything else. It’s a little corny, even," Joyce says. The story starts with a grown-up Clara at an office holiday party. She begins a journey through a polyethnic urban winter wonderland of Spanish dancers, Arabian opium dens, and more.

"It’s, like, sexy and clean at the same time," Joyce says. "We don’t want someone who would normally be at Platinum Plus. You could find something racier on television at pretty much any time of day."

It is a visual symphony, though, of body parts flowing and undulating around the stage. For those sitting in the front row, there are some exciting glimpses if you know where to look. Don’t lean too far forward, though, because there are also some high kicks that might realign your nose.

The dancing itself — there is no dialogue — is excellent. Even in a rough rehearsal during the aforementioned "panic" phase, the group was working well together and molding the action to the stage and the mood.

At the auditions, "all these dancers came out of the woodwork," Joyce says. Many were longtime dancers, and others had some beginning dance experience and little beyond that. "It’s really exciting to work with people like this and see them learn," Joyce says.

Costumes are more seat-of-the-pants, especially for the office party scenes, in which dancers will supply their own clothes. For the fantasy wonderland scenes, the costumes are either handmade or adapted from store purchases. "We’re a little light on the ostrich feathers," Joyce says. They’re expensive; each year they’re hoping to get more flamboyant garb.

The show’s ticket sales will benefit the Preble Street Teen Center, a drop-in support facility for homeless teens and youth at risk. They picked the benefactors because of Brigitte Paulus’s own experiences as a teenager in New York, trying to make it as a dancer.

For eight months, she was homeless, and used a similar drop-in center for support, food, and a hot shower. The shows creators also knew kids in high school and since, who, "for various reasons their home life was unbearable," Joyce says.

"It seemed like a really good fit" with the teen center, though teens are not the intended audience for the show, and the center has been hesitant about the publicity connecting a possibly racy show including opium dens with helping kids. "We never said this was appropriate for teens. It’s a benefit for teens," Joyce says. Next year, they’ll choose another local charity.

"We were hoping they would get a lot of awareness," and the performers used the cause as motivation. "I don’t think we would have done this show for vanity alone," Joyce says.

Nutcracker Burlesque
Adapted by Ellen Joyce, Brigitte Paulus, and Joe Paulus. At the Portland Stage Studio Theater, Dec. 18-21. Call (207) 773-1951.