The Nutcracker, made modern by Current Rhythms

Tickets to both performances of this season’s ballet were sold out

The original Nutcracker is far from modern.

The story dates back to 1816 when E.T.A. Hoffman published the scary adult fairy tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” in Germany. By 1884 Alexander Dumas Pére, a Frenchman, adapted the story for children. It is this adaptation that was originally choreographed into a ballet, with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, for the Russian Imperial Ballet. The first performance was in Petersburg, Russia in 1892. In 1944 the ballet came to the United States and over time grew in popularity. Today, The Nutcracker is an American holiday tradition.

Current Rhythms founder Alyssa Kleissle remembers going to The Nutcracker as a child on the east coast. “It was part of our traditional Christmas memories.”

“I loved going to New York, going to the big tree and going to the performance of the New York City Ballet,” said Alyssa’s sister Marita, who joined the Current Rhythms team when she moved to Cordova in 2011. Their memories inspired the sisters to produce The Nutcracker in Cordova for the first time in 2012 at the elementary school and this year in the Cordova Center.

While the storyline is mostly the same as the ballet the Kleisslers grew up with, the sisters looked to their students to make it their own. “We have kids that don’t necessarily want to do ballet, but they wanted to be in The Nutcracker,” says Alyssa. “We had to find a way to fit that in, so we looked up hip hop Nutcracker, and sure enough there are whole productions of hip hop Nutcracker. They were excited about that.” The kids wanted their Nutcracker to include hip hop and they wanted it to be modern — contemporary. The sisters used a collaboration of the kids’ ideas and their own, revising as they went along to arrive at their finished show.

Current Rhythm’s Nutcracker starts out like many Nutcracker performances — at Herr Drosselmeyer’s toy shop. Drosselmeyer, played by Faith Collins, closes up shop and the curtains open to the party scene where the kids’ thumbs are busy tapping away on imaginary screens. “They are gaming,” says Marita. “The guests are coming and no one pays attention to them, they are just gaming.” The scene carries on, a classic interpretation of old versus new. Parents trying to get the kids to do traditional dances, the kids wanting to do their own thing — until Drosselmeyer comes in.

Drosselmeyer captivates the guests’ attention with funky hip hop toys, candy canes for the children, and a special gift that only Clara wants — the nutcracker. Clara, played by Isabelle Nothstine on Friday night and Victoria Nothstine on Saturday, dances around happily with her Nutcracker until her brother Fritz, played by Ryan Simpler, tries to steal it away and breaks it.

Drosselmeyer bandages the nutcracker and the scene ends with a modern take on the Drosselmeyer’s dance. “It’s a battle of old to new,” Marita explains. “The adults are doing this real classical kind of thing and the kids are doing this hip-hoppy thing. They are like ‘No! We don’t wanna do it that way anymore — we want to do it this way!’”

The party ends, the guests leave and Clara and her nutcracker fall asleep by the tree. While she sleeps, the production’s youngest members, mice starting at age two, come in with the Queen Rat, played by Serena Herschleb, and her gang of hip hop “ratz”. The mice and ratz play a game of keep away the cheese before surrounding the sleeping Clara, who transforms into a much older Clara, played by Ria Smyke. Clara awakes to a strange world full of hip hop mice, ratz and soldiers. The living breathing nutcracker, played by Zya Taylor on Friday night and Andrea Vargas on Saturday, leads her troupe of soldiers into a lively battle with the ratz, the outcome determined when Clara distracts the queen rat by hitting her on the head with a block of cheese. The nutcracker takes her down with a sword, and fist pumps the other soldiers before dancing off to the Land of the Sweets with Clara.

In the second act Current Rhythm’s first year pointe students, the cotton candy, make their debut performance on their tippy toes. This is an accomplishment many of them have been working towards since they were babies. “It’s so hard,” says Alyssa. “They are doing so well and they are only in their first year. They make it look so easy but it’s so hard.”

Current Rhythms started planning for the show with a nutcracker camp in August. Dance classes started in September, working on technique and getting to know each other for the first couple weeks, then moving on to their Nutcracker parts.

It wasn’t until November that the different dance classes met together to see how the groups related to each other. The students built relationships with each other as well as with the performance. They helped each other through costume changes, and the older kids helped the younger kids with anything they needed.

Alyssa encourages these relationships. “We like the older kids to be the models and to help out. We need their hands.”

The end result was a truly collaborative effort. The Teen Art Club created the sets, parents and members of the community volunteered to help with costumes, stage lighting, sound, photography, cupcake baking, hair and makeup. Cordova Arts and Pageants hosted a mulled wine fundraiser before the show and the community packed the theater for both nights of the production.