Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ and the Rock School’s ‘Nutcracker 1776’

A nutcracking good time

Be it George Balanchine's everlasting The Nutcracker presented by the Pennsylvania Ballet or the patriotic adaptation, Nutcracker 1776, danced by the Rock School’s up and comers, Philadelphia offers many options to view this beloved Christmas ballet. While it feels like the city is being taken over by Sugar Plum Fairies, dancing mice, and brazen cultural appropriation, the multitude of productions offer up spice through variety.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Sara Michelle Murawski. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

The Nutcracker reels ‘em in young. I saw my first production when I was nine years old, and my mother danced in it when she was in high school. Adults expect to be rubbing elbows with tots and teens of all ages, so young and old alike can enjoy the spectacle of a night at the ballet. If you’re the Pennsylvania Ballet and have the lush Academy of Music with its rich red carpets, golden walls, and gargantuan chandeliers as your playground, you take spectacle to its extreme. After all, The Nutcracker in all its splendor is a holiday tradition as entrenched as stressing out over what present to buy the relative that wants “I don’t know, a gift card from Amazon or something.”

Pennsylvania Ballet's classic

Balanchine’s version premiered in New York City in 1954, and his take has had a home in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s repertoire since 1968. Their production oozes tradition, presenting the story of Clara (called “Marie” here) and her beloved Nutcracker with the grandiose set and costumes, sweeping orchestrals, and fanciful dancing we all expect.

Marie is given the nutcracker by her mysterious Uncle Drosselmeier (a playful Ian Hussey), her brother Fritz breaks it Dennis-the-Menace-style, and after falling asleep with the bandaged doll, she is launched into a dream world of Drosselmeier’s making. Marie is whisked away to the land of sweets with her Prince for a night of entertainment by countries from all over the world (or all over Europe and Asia, anyway). The second half of the ballet in Candy Land draws on some obvious cultural clichés; the Chinese tea dance always makes me cringe. But if you can overlook the stereotyping, attending the show is like sipping a mug of mulled cider: a comforting blend of wintery and warm.

Pennsylvania Ballet Company Member Russell Ducker with students from The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)
Pennsylvania Ballet Company Member Russell Ducker with students from The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

While some choreographers play around with the ages of Marie and the Nutcracker, Balanchine insisted the roles be danced by children. With this in mind, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s cast includes children just beginning their dancing careers alongside members of the professional company for the more complicated and technical roles.

Lillian Di Piazza shimmers and sparks as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with Sterling Baca as her Cavalier performing lifts and spins with strength and bravura during their pas de deux. Jermel Johnson does some impressive hoop jumping work as lead Candy Cane, and Yuka Iseda’s Dewdrop is equal parts sugar-spun sweetness and studied grace during the Waltz of the Flowers. The cast alternates with each performance. But if this evening was any indication, you’re in good hands no matter which set of dancers you get.

The visuals are scrumptious. Peter Horne’s painted floor-to-ceiling backdrops evoke the old-world drama of the theater, and the detail work, down to candy cane columns, is delightful and surprisingly multi-dimensional. These spaces come alive. Costumes by Judanna Lynn tie the experience together with pieces that accentuate the lavish atmosphere: gauzy taffeta tutus, sumptuous fabrics, just the right amount of glitz. The nine-year-old in me was pleased and jealous.

The Rock School's interpretation

The Rock School brings a rush of freshness and excitement in their Nutcracker 1776. It may not have the glam factor of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production, but the dancers and the production team put together a fun show that showcases wee ones, teens, and in-betweens.

Clara (named Abby in 'Nutcracker 1776'), center, danced by Ellie Iannotti. (Photo courtesy of the Rock School)
Clara (named Abby in 'Nutcracker 1776'), center, danced by Ellie Iannotti. (Photo courtesy of the Rock School)

The adaptation also allows children to engage with our nation’s history by bringing this popular ballet set in Germany to the colonial United States. Drosselmeier becomes Benjamin Franklin (Because, I don’t know, he magically invented things?) in one of the show’s strangest changes to the script, but the rest of the plot neatly falls in line. Through Laura Berry’s clever costuming, the mice become British soldiers and the Nutcracker’s team, American revolutionaries. The soldiers use a cannon with “Don’t tread on me” painted on its side. Clara transforms from her white-and-red party dress to a patriotic red, white, and blue number for the fray against the Mouse King. Combined with a wonderfully diverse cast, the Rock School’s Nutcracker 1776 highlights the kind of innocent U.S. optimism that feels welcome rather than foreboding. It doesn’t hurt that the message is packaged in adorable kids running around in angel costumes and star-spangled getups.

But don’t let the show’s recital-esque nature fool you. These kids can dance. The skills of the older dancers are thrilling, with their leaps, turns, and acrobatics eliciting many an “ooh” and “ahh” from the audience. Among them could be the next generation of Misty Copelands and Sergei Polunins, and you can catch them before they move to the next phases of their bright futures.

The world may be in turmoil and we’re about to be catapulted into political uncertainty, but you can count on one thing this holiday season: The Nutcracker is here to stay, and it will lift your spirits.  

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