The Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker Raises the Barre on Diversity

A Nutcracker that keeps the wintertime magic of Tchaikovsky’s opulent score, while speaking the language of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (all photos by Julie Lemberger)

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, with its outsized Christmas celebration and foray into the Land of Sweets, has become such an ingrained Holiday-time tradition that, more often than not, all these dancing confectioneries tend to feel too cloyingly saccharine, especially when the ballet is just pure repertoire.

Thankfully, Brooklyn Ballet artistic director Lynn Parkerson found a way to make it fresh again, and she did not need to look any further than her own borough.

“Doing a Nutcracker was important. We have a school with many students,” she told me, referring to the fact that the production combines both professional dancers and the company’s student’s, the Brooklyn Ballet Youth Dancers. “I wanted to do a Nutcracker production: it’s the most well-known ballet. It’s the first ballet you get to perform in as a child, the first ballet you dance as a professional. I love the ballet. I wanted it to reflect Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (all photos by Julie Lemberger)

With an exceptionally diverse corps de ballet, The Brooklyn Nutcracker pays tribute to the borough’s diversity, replacing  Tchaikovsky’s “national” dances (“Chinese Tea,” “Russian Candy Canes,” and so on) with dances that reflect a clearer view of Brooklyn cultures, from the Dutch settlements to the Caribbean communities.

This idea translates exceptionally well on stage: Herr Drosselmeyer is played by the pop-and-lock artist Michael “Big Mike” Fields, who dances smoothly and seamlessly, at times in robotic motions, at times in fluid moonwalking steps, with a classically trained ballerina who recreates the mechanical moves of a wind-up doll.

The land of sweets is a foray into contemporary Brooklyn: in the “Flatbush Angels” number, set to the Nutcracker’s “Magic Castle” theme, hip-hop dancers perform alongside Native-American hip hop virtuoso Nakotah LaRance, who, other than dancing, also manipulates 24-inch-diameter hoops into unusual shapes. The mystical-sounding “Arabian Dance” is a full-on bellydancing number — not the acrobatically sinuous version performed in more traditional ballet productions.

Nakotah Larance in Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker

We see Parkerson’s creative vision at its best in the Dance of the Marzipans, where she pairs ballerinas with Afro-Caribbean dancers, and they perform side by side; the former group with ballet’s measured, upward aesthetic, the former with the grounded squats and dynamic lunges of Afro-Caribbean dance.

When Brooklyn Ballet does look to tradition, it does so by mixing classical ballet sequences with a sophisticated degree of technology. Thanks to a collaboration with hacker collective NYC Resistor, the Snowflakes wore tutus encrusted with LED lightbulbs connected to a motion sensor, which, like a snowstorm, would sparkle while they pranced and gradually fade as they paused. Parkerson based the choreography for the “Waltz of the Flowers,” the great ensemble number of the second act, on choreographic diagrams from the 1800s for the different flower formations. Still, the Brooklyn Ballet’s Flowers had a modern edge,  clad in tutus laced with fiber-optics threads which, when the lights dimmed, emitted a blue-greenish hue. “Like lava lamps!” Parkerson told me.

Brooklyn Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (all photos by Julie Lemberger)

It might come as a surprise that, with all these innovative elements Parker has kept the original Tchaikovsky,but there’s a reason for that. “The score is important: that’s how we know the Nutcracker,” Parkerson said.

In all, more than a love letter to Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Nutcracker feels like an ode to the diversity of the United States as a nation.

The Brooklyn Nutcracker runs through December 16 at The Irondale Theater (85 South Oxford Street, Downtown Brooklyn).

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