Not Your Average 'Nutcracker': The World's Most Imaginative Productions

When most of us think of The Nutcracker, we imagine a growing Christmas tree, dancing mice, and a little girl named Clara (or Marie) traveling to the Land of Sweets. But companies around the world have been reinventing the holiday classic, changing the storyline or adding their own spectacular sets and characters. To get in the Nutcracker spirit this season, check out these out-of-the-box productions.

A "Nutcracker" Trip to the Chicago World's Fair

The Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" (photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy The Joffrey Ballet)

Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, is set in Chicago a few months before the 1893 world's fair. "It was an amazing turning point in terms of architecture and electricity," says artistic director Ashley Wheater. "It had the first Ferris wheel, and put Chicago on the map."

Wheeldon's production uses the fair's history to tell a story about immigrants and what it means to belong, making Marie the daughter of a poor single mother. Visitors to the fair dance under a gigantic projection of a Ferris wheel during the "Waltz of the Flowers"; Marie's mother, a sculptress, becomes the Golden Statue and dances what's normally the Sugar Plum pas de deux with the Great Impresario of the Fair. "It's very theatrical and incredibly touching," says Wheater. "The whole creative team took us on a different journey than any other Nutcracker."

A Nautical "Nut"

Eastern Connecticut Ballet's "Nutcracker" (courtesy Eastern Connecticut Ballet)

Eastern Connecticut Ballet's production takes place in the 1850s, at the peak of the whaling industry. "We wanted to create a Nutcracker that our school children and the community could relate to," says executive director and founder Lise Reardon. "Look around our area and you'll see seaports, maritime museums, and the Coast Guard Academy. That was our inspiration."

In the ECB Nutcracker, Clara's father is a sea captain who comes home with stories about places and people he's seen around the world. The battle scene begins when the tree turns into a giant boat and takes Clara to a fight on the high seas, complete with pirate rats and sailors. "Then they journey to a magical seaport where there are dancers from countries around the world," Reardon says. The tiny angels in Act II even carry sea horses and shells.

An African-Style "Nutcracker"

South Africa's Joburg Ballet is home to The Nutcracker, Re-Imagined, a version of the holiday classic set in Africa. Drosselmeyer's character becomes a sangoma, a traditional African healer, who leads Clara on a journey to show her the beauty of the continent, and the production incorporates designs that are specific to its locale. (The "Waltz of the Flowers" happens in the Kalahari Desert, for example, and the "Spanish Dance" is set in Zanzibar.)

The show also fuses a diverse range of dance styles, including a local one known as gumboot dancing. "Here, people actually wear 'gumboots,' or Wellington boots, to dance in!" says senior soloist Angela Revie. "Elements like that make the production feel more rooted and relevant for our audiences."

An Especially Nutty "Hard Nut"

Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut" (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group)

Mark Morris' playful The Hard Nut was inspired by the original story on which The Nutcracker was based, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffmann. "It's a wonderful and complicated tale of growing up and finding out about the world and its many fascinating people and customs and ideas," Morris says. But Morris transports the story to the 1970s—
which happens to be when he was a kid.

With its graphic sets and costumes inspired by the work of comic book artist Charles Burns, The Hard Nut is "fun, romantic, modern, scary, and beautiful," Morris says. "It's amazing to me that The Hard Nut has gone from being seen as a send-up or a parody to a classic," he adds. "There are people who, having seen it as children, now bring their own children to see it."

The National Ballet of China's version of The Nutcracker is Chinese New Year–themed. Tuantuan (Fritz) and his friends bully Yuanyuan (Clara) with nunchucks while wearing green dragon masks, and Yuanyuan gets help from sword-bearing tigers.

The Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" (photo by Tony Brown, courtesy The Washington Ballet)

In The Washington Ballet's Revolutionary War–themed Nutcracker, the Nutcracker character is George Washington, who fights not the Mouse King but King George III.

Rudolf Nureyev's Nutcracker at the Paris Opéra Ballet has no Sugar Plum Fairy or Land of Sweets. Instead, party guests perform the Act II divertissements, and Drosselmeyer turns into the Prince to dance with Clara (performed by an adult).

Matthew Bourne's "Nutcracker" (photo by Simon Annand, courtesy Raw PR)

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! is set in a grim orphanage, from which Clara escapes to Sweetieland—chasing the Nutcracker, who's dumped her for Sugar, i.e., the Sugar Plum Fairy. (Clara gets her man back in the end.)

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Not Your Average Nutcracker."

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