Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 1:36 PM on Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nutcracker: The Next Generation takes over ballet

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer NewsPhoto provided

Young girls dance with toys given by Uncle Drosselmeyer, left, played by Curtis Jackson, during the party scene of the Nutcracker Ballet.

When the Homer Nutcracker ballet founders Jill Berryman, Joy Steward and Marianne Markelz announced that 2010 would be the last year they ran the 22-year-old Homer holiday tradition, producer Ken Castner jokingly called the new directors and dancers "Nutcracker: The Next Generation."

Ensign Data, engage warp drive.

Or, make that steam drive. Saturday afternoon when the Nutcracker Ballet opens at the Mariner Theatre, it will be forward into the past when the 23rd production goes back to the story's original roots in E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." The modern Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky uses an adaption by Alexandre Dumas of Hoffmann's story. Artistic co-directors Breezy Berryman and Jennifer Norton use Hoffmann's less dreamy but more fantastic story — a story in the German 19th century Gothic tradition.

"I just love fairy tales that are kind of out there and take you on a wild journey," Norton said. "We definitely wanted to have that element."

The directors also incorporate a modern theme that mixes the Victorian era of conservative social mores with Industrial Age steam technology: steampunk. Science fiction writer K.W. Jeter coined the term in 1987 to describe a trend he called the "gonzo-historical manner." Noticing a prevalance then of Victorian fantasies, Jeter jokingly suggested the trend be called "steampunk."

Steampunk has now become a literary, film, fashion and design phenomena. It combines late 19th century costumes and technology with stylized, intricate details. Think lots of gears, brass filligree, velvet, leather, dirigibles and steam power.

"There are a lot of improbable things that can happen with steampunk technology, which is sort of a blend of magic, science fiction and weird old technology," Norton said.

Berryman and Norton use many of the old ballet scenes and dances. There's the Christmas party scene at the Stahlbaum home when young Clara gets a nutcracker doll from Uncle Drosselmeyer. Instead of Clara falling asleep and dreaming of a handsome Nutcracker Prince, in Hoffmann's version Clara goes on a magical journey with the Nutcracker. Mistress Mousie has cursed a young boy and transformed him into the hideous Nutcracker, with strong jaws and a long white beard. Only the love of a woman who accepts him despite his hideous face can break the curse. "Will Clara come to love the ugly Nutcracker?" is the story's plot.

Drosselmeyer, played by Norton's husband, Curtis Jackson, has the proper steampunk attitude. He arrives at the Stahlbaum party in a dirigible. He wears a leather helmet, goggles, high boots and a flowing cape. In Hoffmann's story, Drosselmeyer makes intricate machines with clockworks and lots of gears, Norton notes — very steampunk.

Berryman has added some new dances to fit the revised plot. For example, as Clara and the Nutcracker travel, they come across a pack of wolves threatening sheep guarded by a shepherdess. That led to some resistance from the seasoned dancers, many of whom are in high school and started in grade school as mice.

"At first people were saying, 'What are you doing? I can't be a wolf to this music,'" Berryman said. "The more they do it, they more they get into it."

The dancers have come along, though, Norton said.

"They've all been working so hard and just really — even though they've been skeptical at moments — they've thrown themselves into it and are doing their most wonderful work right now," she said.

Also new this year is some equal opportunity for a role usually played by boys: the rat army. Three girls will be rats, right down to big eyelashes and red lips.

"I think it's a pretty exciting opportunity to mess up the gender roles a bit as well as having an exciting story line to play with," Norton said.

Joshua Palmer plays the Nutcracker and Holly Bowler plays Clara. Palmer and rehearsal mistress Deborah Lohse and Amanda Ringger come from New York, professionals in the NYC dance community Berryman met while studying dance at New York University and dancing professionally in numerous companies.

Continuing the work of her mother Jill Berryman, Breezy Berryman has been teaching ballet classes to a new generation of young dancers — how the Nutcracker can keep going for almost a quarter century. Even though Jill Berryman stepped back this year, she still can't resist helping out, like working with Bowler and Palmer to polish their dancing.

"She can't help it. She loves it so much," Breezy said.

That's one thing that hasn't changed: the love a cast and crew of more than 85 throws in to the production starting in October, if not sooner.

"It's fantastic how everybody has been during this whole transition," Norton said. "Everyone has taken it in stride — 'We want to do what you want. Just tell us what you want and we'll make it happen.' That's been really pretty amazing."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.