The Lifelong Wonder of A Nutcracker

Photo credit: Maria Baranova

Three Claras in A Nutcracker: Part One. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

In life and storytelling, there are many stages one goes through to reach a grand finale. Walking into the immersive folk-tale jungle of the workshop A Nutcracker: Part One, there were many stages, too – quite literally. Dancers leaped and paraded through four distinct spaces in the cavernous warehouse-like space of The Knockdown Center in Queens, with multiple generations represented among the cast. In doing so, the novel vision of director Joshua William Gelb and choreographer Katie Rose McLaughlin pieced together the frayed threads of a prima ballerina’s steps through life, using the classic language of The Nutcracker.

The premise of A Nutcracker, noted as a workshop production, is a chronicle of Clara, now envisioned as a ballet dancer, and how the events in The Nutcracker can symbolize different memories for her. The sheer timelessness of The Nutcracker, presented without fail by hundreds of professional and community ballet companies alike, ensures that a dancer like Clara can find different meaning in the story as she ages. And so we see an exuberant child (Louisa Blakely), a twentysomething in the throes of young romance (Kaitlyn Gilliland), a stately maturing Clara (Lisa Lockwood), and a snoozing elder woman (Valda Setterfield) who is feverishly recalling her years as she watches old performances on television. The men who loved her (Pierre Guilbault and Gary Chryst), sometimes styled in full rodent regalia as the Rat King, accompany the Claras along her journey. This multigenerational company dance solo fragments and swirl within each other’s worlds, evocative of the hazy memories swimming within a woman’s mind.

The immersive space at the Knockdown Center was presented to the audience much like a present on Christmas morning, with the eager viewers kept in the audience until the grand unveiling. Once within the space, more careful surprises were in store. Exploring the whimsical details of Sara Walsh’s scenic design was part of the holiday fun, from cascading pointe shoe ribbons extending from the ceiling to partially eaten sweet treats lining the walls.

The intricacies of A Nutcracker were what made the production most striking; from the way Gelb built focus in a constantly shifting environment to the thematically intertwined costuming. Many fall in love with ballet exactly for it’s extremely presentational grandeur, so the detailing of this production felt both familiar and somewhat subversive.

As someone who grew up as a dancer, A Nutcracker had immediate resonance for me. Even at a young age, I’ve questioned my changing relationship with my own body and wistfully looked back to high school dance photos, balanced on pointe shoes in a majestic costume. This story seemed to explore the overwhelming force of nostalgia, and the psychological tendency to relate one’s experiences back to an archetypical narrative. So while my background made me feel especially connected to A Nutcracker, its emotional reach is accessible to anyone wistful.

The holiday season, more often than other points of the year, can be a time of reflection. Regrets and triumphs surface as the New Year looms. Though Clara’s story in A Nutcracker felt somewhat unfinished after the brief presentation, the workshop was marked only as the first part of the performance. Hopefully, the story will one day play out in its entirety with even more poignant dance numbers, all-encompassing environments, and pensive memories in this production’s future.

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