When Maurice Sendak Created a Dark Nutcracker Ballet

Children are the perfect audience for The Nutcracker. 

(Well, children and the grandmothers who can’t wait for the toddler to start sitting still long enough to make the holiday-themed ballet an annual tradition…)

Maurice Sendak, the celebrated children’s book author and illustrator, agreed, but found the standard George Balanchine-choreographed version so treacly as to be unworthy of children, dubbing it the “most bland and banal of ballets.”

The 1983 production he collaborated on with Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell did away with the notion that children should be “coddled and sweetened and sugarplummed and kept away from the dark aspects of life when there is no way of doing that.”


Tchaikovsky’s famous score remained in place, but Sendak and Stowell ducked the source material for, well, more source material. As per the New York City Ballet’s website, the Russian Imperial Ballet’s chief ballet master, Marius Petipa, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write music for an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ child-friendly story The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. But The Nutcracker of Nuremberg was inspired by the much darker E.T.A. Hoffman tale, 1816’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

The “weird, dark qualities” of the original were much more in keeping with Sendak’s self proclaimed “obsessive theme”: “Children surviving childhood.”

Sendak wanted the ballet to focus more intently on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nutcracker as a Christmas present in Act I:

It’s about her victory over her fear and her growing feelings for the prince… She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.

 

Balanchine must have felt differently. He benched Clara in Act II, letting the adult Sugarplum Fairy take centerstage, to guide the children through a passive tour of the Land of Sweets.

As Sendak scoffed to the Dallas Morning News:

It’s all very, very pretty and very, very beautiful… I always hated the Sugarplum Fairy. I always wanted to whack her.

“Like what kids really want is a candy kingdom. That shortchanges children’s feelings about life,” echoes Stowell, who revived the Sendak commission, featuring the illustrator’s sets and costumes every winter for 3 decades.

In lieu of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stowell introduced a dazzling caged peacock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s mother in Act I.

The threats, in the form of eccentric uncle Drosselmeier, a ferocious tiger, and a massive rat puppet with an impressive, pulsing tail, have a Freudian edge.

The painted backdrops, growing Christmas tree, and Nutcracker toy look as if they emerged from one of Sendak’s books. (He followed up the ballet by illustrating a new translation of the Hoffman original.)

The Sendak-designed costumes are more understated, thought Pacific Northwest Ballet costumer Mark Zappone, who described working with Sendak as “an incredible joy and pleasure” and recalled the funny ongoing battle with the Act II Moors costumes to Seattle Met:

Maurice’s design had the women in quite billowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the studios, and Kent started rehearsing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They ended up, for years, twisting the legs in their costumes and making a little tuck here and there. It was a rite of passage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t forget to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.

Rent a filmed version of Maurice Sendak’s The Nutcracker on Amazon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boating scene with Clara and her Prince.)

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Awesome Human Choreography That Reproduces the Murmurations of Starling Flocks

A number of choreographers have taken inspiration from the movement of birds.

Sadek Waff, creator of thrillingly precise “murmurations” such as the one above, is also inspired by street dance — particularly the popping hip hop moves known as Tutting and ToyMan.

The nature lover and founder of the dance troupe Géométrie Variable uses both to excellent effect, channeling a starling flock’s hive mind with human dancers, whose lower halves remain firmly rooted. It’s all about the hands and arms, punctuated with the occasional neck flex.

As he observes on his Instagram profile:

There is magic everywhere, the key is knowing how to look and listen in silence. Like a cloud of birds forming waves in the sky, each individual has their own identity but also has an irreplaceable place in the whole.

To achieve these kaleidoscopic murmurations, Waff’s dancers drill for hours, counting aloud in unison, refining their gestures to the point where the individual is subsumed by the group.

The use of mirrors can heighten the illusion:

The reflection brings a symmetrical dimension, like a calm body of water contemplating the spectacle from another point of view, adding an additional dimension, an extension of the image.

The larger the group, the more dazzling the effect, though a video featuring a smaller than usual group of dancers — 20 in total — is helpful for isolating the components Waff brings to bear in his avian-inspired work.

We’re particularly enthralled by the murmuration Waff created for the 2020 Paralympic Games’ closing ceremony in Tokyo, using both professionals and amateurs in matching black COVID-precaution masks to embody the event’s themes of “harmonious cacophony” and “moving forward.” (Notice that the front row of dancers are wheelchair users.)

See more of Sadek Waff’s murmurations on his YouTube channel and on Instagram.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

The English language has adopted kabuki as an adjective, applied to situations where exaggerated appearances and performances are everything. Business, politics, media: name any realm of modernity, and the myriad ways in which its affairs can turn kabuki will spring to mind. A highly stylized form of dance-drama originating in the seventeenth century, it continues to stand today as a pillar of classical Japanese culture — and indeed, according to UNESCO, one piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The worldwide regard for kabuki owes in part to self-promotional efforts on the part of Japan, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned the half-hour introductory film above.

Produced in 1964, Kabuki: The Classic Theatre of Japan holds up as a representation of the art, as well as a view of some of the mid-20th century’s master practitioners. These actors include Jitsukawa Enjaku III, Nakamura Utaemon VI, and Ichikawa Danjūrō XI, whose stage names reflect their place in an unbroken professional lineage.


In fact, Ichikawa Danjūrō XI is a predecessor of Ichikawa Ebizō XI, previously featured here on Open Culture for his work in kabuki Star Wars adaptations. The generations shown here didn’t go in for such pop-cultural hybridization, but rather plays from the traditional kabuki repertoire like ShibarakuMusume Dōjōji, and Sukeroku, scenes from all three of which appear in the film.

“Through elaborate costumes and vivid makeup, through beautifully stylized acting and exaggerated vocalization, and highlighted with picturesque settings and colorful music, the kabuki actors create dramatic effects of extraordinary intensity within a framework of pure entertainment,” explains the narrator. And as in the early performances of Shakespeare, all the roles are played by males, specialists known as onnagata. “Because the emphasis in kabuki is on artistic performance, not realism, the onnagata is considered more capable of expressing true femininity than is possible for an actress.” This may have struck Western viewers in the 1960s as an odd notion, but the sheer foreignness of kabuki — cultural, geographical, and temporal — must have been as captivating back then as it remains today, no matter how long we’ve been throwing its name around.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Dancer Pays a Gravity-Defying Tribute to Claude Debussy

Most dancers have an intuitive understanding of physics.

Choreographer Yoann Bourgeois pushes this science beyond the standard lifts, leaps, and pirouettes, drawing on his training at the Centre National Des Arts du Cirque for a piece marking the centenary of composer Claude Debussy’s death, above.

Given the occasion, the choice of Clair de Lune, Debussy’s best loved piano work, feels practically de rigueur, but the trampoline comes as a bit of a shock.

We may not be able to see it, but it plays such an essential role, it’s tempting to call this solo a pas de deux. At the very least, the trampoline is an essential collaborator, along with pianist Alexandre Tharau and filmmaker Raphaël Wertheimer.


Bourgeois’ expressiveness as a performer has earned him comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His choreography shows that he also shares their work ethic, attention to detail, and love of jawdropping visual stunts.

Don’t expect any random boinging around on this tramp’.

For four and a half minutes, Bourgeois’ everyman struggles to get to the top of a stark white staircase. Every time he falls off, the trampoline launches him back onto one of the steps — higher, lower, the very one he fell off of…

Interpret this struggle how you will.

Psyche, a digital magazine that “illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts” found it to be “an abstracted interpretation of a childlike experience of time.” One viewer wondered if the number of steps — twelve — was significant.

It’s no stretch to conceive of it as a comment on the nature of life — a constant cycle of falling down and bouncing back.

It’s lovely to behold because Bourgeois makes it look so easy.

In an interview with NR, he spoke of how his circus studies led to the realization that “the relationship between physical forces” is what he’s most interested in exploring. The stairs and trampoline, like all of his sets (or devices, as he prefers to call them), are there to “amplify specific physical phenomenon”:

In science, we’d call them models – they’re simplifications of our world that enable me to amplify one particular force at a time. Together, this ensemble of devices, this constellation of constructed devices, tentatively approaches the point of suspension. And so, this makes up a body of research; it’s a life’s research that doesn’t have an end in itself. 

The relationship with physical forces has an eloquent capacity that can be very big; it has the kind of expression that is universal.

Watch more of Youann Bourgeois’ physics-based choreography on his YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Mistake Waltz: Watch the Hilarious Ballet by Legendary Choreographer Jerome Robbins

So often mistakes are the most memorable part of live performance.

In Jerome Robbins’ The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody)they’re built in.

The portion set to Chopin’s Waltz in E Minor, above, has earned the nickname The Mistake Waltz. It’s an anthology of screw ups that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a few amateur ballet productions and school recitals.


When the entire ensemble is meant to be traveling in the same direction or synchronizing swanlike gestures, the one who’s egregiously out of step is a guaranteed standout… if not the audience’s flat out favorite.

Robbins generously spreads the clowning between all six members of the corps, getting extra mileage from the telegraphed irritation in every indiscreetly attempted correction.

Performed well, the silliness seems almost improvisational, but as with all of this legendary choreographer’s work, the spontaneous beats are very, very specific.

It only works if the dancers have the technical prowess and the comic chops to pull it off. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo aside, this can present a sizable casting challenge.

Robbins also felt that The Concert should be presented sparingly, to keep the jokes from becoming stale.

Individual companies have some agency over their costumes, but other than that, it is executed just as it was in its 1956 debut with the New York City Ballet.

Former NYCB lead dancer Peter Boal, who was 10 when he played Cupid in Robbins’ Mother Goose, has made The Concert part of Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s repertoire. He revealed another side of the exacting Robbins in a personal essay in Dance Magazine:

He had the unique ability to become kid-like in the studio, giggling with others and often laughing robustly at his own jokes. He was certainly his own best audience for The Concert. How many times had he seen those gags and yet fresh, spontaneous laughter erupted from him as if it was a first telling.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety show honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

Quarantined Dancer Creates Shot-for-Shot Remake of the Final Dirty Dancing Scene with a Lamp as a Dance Partner

1987’s low budget sleeper hit, Dirty Dancing, propelled its leads, Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze, to instant stardom.

Swayze later mused to the American Film Institute about the film’s remarkable staying power:

It’s got so much heart, to me. It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves, this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.

Nearly 35 years after the original release, another gifted male dancer, Brooklyn-based photographer Quinn Wharton, is tapping into that heart… and Grey has been replaced by a lamp.

Wharton once told Ballet Hub that his favorite part of dancing professionally with the San Francisco Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago was the access it gave him to the great names in dance — William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, and others whose proximity made for “a remarkable education.”


The first few months of the pandemic forced him to dance solo, recreating memorable film moments in response to a friend’s challenge:

I was hesitant at first but thought I would give it a try to see what I might be able to learn from it. Turns out it was way more fun than I thought and the result was funnier than I could have imagined.

We agree that his Quinn-tessential Dance Scenes series is very funny, as well as beautifully executed in the twin arenas of camera work and dance. His self-imposed parameters — no outside help, no green screen, no filming outside of the apartment, and no special purchases of props or costumes, contribute to the humor.

His hardworking, disembodied, comparatively well-covered haunches elicit laughs when seen next to the much skimpier original costume of Flashdance’s “Maniac” scene, above. 18-year-old star Jennifer Beals had three dance doubles — Marine Jahan, gymnast Sharon Shapiro, and legendary B-Boy Richard Colón, aka Crazy Legs of Rock Steady crew. None of them appeared in the original credits because, as Jahan told Entertainment Tonight, the producers “didn’t want to break the magic.”

In other words, a lot of steamy 80s-era fantasies centered on Beals are now known to be a case — possibly three cases — of mistaken identity.

Wharton’s quarantine project afforded him a chance to come at John Travolta from two angles, thanks to the disco classic Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction’s twist sequence, a surprisingly popular fan request. Though Travolta’s dance training was limited to childhood tap lessons with Gene Kelly’s brother, Fred, Wharton praises his “serious range.”

Wharton cites the inspiration for one of his lesser known recreations, director Baz Lurhman’s first feature, Strictly Ballroom, as a reason he began dancing:

My dad loves this movie and as a kid I can’t count the number of times that I watched it. It’s so much, loud, brash, exuberant …It also allowed me to bring back my favorite partner.

Quinn-tessential Dance Scenes is on hiatus so Wharton can concentrate on his work as a dance photographer. Watch a playlist of all eight episodes here.

See more of his dance photography on his Instagram page.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, who can occasionally be spotted wandering around New York City in a bear suit, in character as L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the “Greatest Juggler of the Ages,” Frances Brunn, Perform His “Painfully Exciting” Juggling Routine (1969)

When John Ringling North, then president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw a pair of German  jugglers and acrobats perform in Spain, he immediately invited them to join “the Greatest Show on Earth.” A brother and sister team, Francis and Lottie Brunn would astonish audiences. In 1950, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Francis “the greatest juggler of the ages. Not many people in the world are as perfectly adjusted as Mr. Brunn is. He will never have to visit a psychiatrist.” If physical grace and balance are reflective of one’s state of mind, maybe he was right.

When Lottie left the act in 1951, Francis went on to popular fame and even more hyperbolic acclaim. “After he performed before the queen of England in 1963, The Evening Standard called his show ‘almost painfully exciting,’” Douglas Martin writes at The New York Times.


“Trying to describe Brunn’s act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow,” writes Francisco Alvarez in Juggling: Its History and Greatest Performers. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, “played the Palace with Judy Garland,” notes Martin, “and went twice to the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed him the best juggler he had ever seen.”

None of this should bias you toward the television performance, above, of course. (How many jugglers could Eisenhower have seen, anyway?) Judge for yourself. By way of further context, we should note that Brunn was known for perfecting “an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination.” Or as Brunn put it, “it sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly.” As anyone (or virtually everyone) who has tried and failed to juggle can attest, this description fits the art of juggling in general all too well.

Brunn made it look laughably easy: “Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops,” Martin writes. He also liked to incorporate flamenco into his act to compound the difficulty and the grace. “I do not consider myself doing tricks,” he said in 1983. “There is one movement for eight minutes. It’s supposed to be, let’s say, like a ballet…. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end.” Brunn, I suspect, never got to hear the sound of stunned silence after his act.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Evolution of Dance from 1950 to 2019: A 7-Decade Joy Ride in 6 Minutes

I see Michael Jackson as a dance style, okay? — Ricardo Walker 

Ricardo Walker and his Crew’s The Evolution of Dance, 1950 to 2019 will make you regret every minute spent hugging the wall in middle school.

The breakneck, 6-minute romp led by dancer, choreographer, and Michael Jackson impersonator Ricardo Walker, not only showcases the all-male Brazilian crew’s talent, it makes a strong case for throwing yourself into some serious dance floor silliness.


The Crew, formed by a mutual passion for the King of Pop’s moves, is plenty cool, but their willingness to ham their way through “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” the “Macarena,” and Dirty Dancing’s “Time of My Life” suggest that the joys of dance are available to ordinary mortals such as ourselves.

They cavort in sagging early 90s-style Hammer Pants for “U Can’t Touch This” and don Western wear for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the most recent number on this musical tour.

Troupe members Gabriel Zaidan and Alexandre “Lelê” Mayrink seem unhampered by vanity, tossing their enviable locks into the 35 costume changes’ goofiest styles.

The Crew took 16 hours to get the video in the can on a day when one of their number felt under the weather, and they had to be out of the studio by 7pm. (Our compliments to the editor!)

While such hits as Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Madonna’s “Vogue,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” and — who could forget? — “Gangnam Style” instantly summon a period, the 90s placement of Tom Jones’ signature tune, “It’s Not Unusual,” is throwing viewers for a loop.

How did that old chestnut wind up between Madonna and Backstreet Boys?

By virtue of its first studio version, released in 1995 as part of the compilation album The Legendary Tom Jones — 30th Anniversary Album, that’s how.

Prior to their virtuoso turn in the Evolution of Dance, 1950 to 2019, the group guided viewers through the Evolution of Michael Jackson’s Dance. (Jackson’s influence is also evident throughout the former, earning him 4 nods.)

For those whose feet have begun to itch, choreographer Walker teaches a Master Class in Michael Jackson’s dance moves for $100.

Songs used in The Evolution of Dance — 1950 to 2019 — by Ricardo Walker’s Crew

00:03​ – 00:13​ – Singin’in the Rain – Gene Kelly

00:13​ – 00:23​ – Hound Dog – Elvis Presley

00:23​ – 00:30​ – Tutti Frutti – Little Richard

00:30​ – 00:35​ – Let’s Twist Again – Chubby Checker switch to color

00:35​ – 00:45​ – I feel good – James Brown

00:45​ – 00:57​ – I Want You Back – The Jackson Five

00:57​ – 01:09​ – Stayin’ Alive – Bee Gees

01:09​ – 01:16​ – Dancing Machine – The Jacksons

01:16​ – 01:20​ – Shake your Body – The Jacksons

01:20​ – 01:24​ – You’re the one that I want – John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John

01:24​ – 01:31​ – Time of My Life – Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes

01:31​ – 01:46​ – Billie Jean – Michael Jackson

01:46​ – 01:55​ – Rhythm Nation – Janet Jackson

01:55​ – 02:03​ – FootLoose –  Kenny Loggins

02:03​ – 02:13​ – Thriller – Michael Jackson

02:13​ – 02:18​ – What a feeling – Irene Cara

02:18​ – 02:22​ – U can’t touch this – MC Hammer

02:22​ – 02:31​ – Black or White – Michael Jackson

02:31​ – 02:42​ – Vogue – Madonna

02:42​ – 02:51​ – It’s not unusual – Tom Jones

02:51​ – 03:02​ – Everybody – Backstreet Boys

03:02​ – 03:13​ – Macarena – Los Del Río

03:13​ – 03:26​ – Crank That – Soulja Boy

03:26​ – 03:33​ – Single Ladies – Beyonce

03:33​ – 03:46​ – Bye Bye Bye – NSYNC

03:46​ – 03:54​ – Ragatanga – Rouge

03:54​ – 04:04​ – Gangnam Style – PSY

04:04​ – 04:15​ – Despacito – Luis Fonsi

04:15​ – 04:25​ – Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson , Bruno Mars

04:25​ – 04:34​ – Party Rock Anthem – LMFAO

04:34​ – 04:43​ – Can’t Stop The Feeling – Justin Timberlake

04:43​ – 04:51​ – Watch Me – Silentó

04:51​ – 05:03​ – Swish Swish – Katy Perry

05:03​ – 05:17​ – In My Feeling – Drake

05:17​ – 05:35​ – Old Town Road – Lil Nas X

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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