How in the world did the Black Swan end up in The Nutcracker?
Easy, for after umpteen runs of Texas Ballet Theater's production, someone saw fit to take a potshot. The result: The Nutty Nutcracker. That "someone" was artistic director Ben Stevenson, who had much help from the dancers. The performance was presented for one night during the run of TBT's regular Nut at Bass Performance Hall.
We know something is awry before the curtain opens. To "God Save the Queen," the light shines on a box seat where Queen Elizabeth II, in yellow dress, hat and gloves, sits in regal calm, flanked by Prince William and Kate in their 2011 wedding attire, and behind, towering guards.
Instead of the beribboned and bejeweled characters that grace the Stahlbaum grand ballroom on Christmas Eve, the main players are characters straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Clara turns into Dorothy, Fritz into Toto, and Dr. Drosselmeyer into the Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (wickedly played by the six-foot-two Lucas Priolo on pointe). The Scarecrow wobbles, the Tin Man collapses, and Toto—given a tempting bone—does what any normal dog will do: drop to his haunches and paw the ground. Good luck on finding dirt.
But if The Nutty Nutcracker has strayed into a totally different fairy tale, it isn't inclined to stop there. Characters from Star Wars and Swan Lake pop up in unexpected scenes, like the shaggy Chewbacca in the Arabian divertissement. Princes Leia needs a lint brush to rid her dress of the beast's shedding hair.
Nor does The Nutty Nutcracker even stay in the realm of fairy tales. There is too much to glean from the real world.
The gags come in spurts, with a guest list as outlandish as it is unexpected. A hyped-up Dirk Nowitzki (Paul Adams) in shorts and No. 41 taped to his shirt maneuvers among the crowd bouncing a basketball. Toto catches it. Lindsay Lohan arrives in bad humor gripping her handbag like a protective shield, with a cop hot on her heels. Joan Crawford sashays in wielding a coat hanger, up to no good. A character from The Help wanders through, cleaning.
Soon the guests are dancing a mean jig with some unlikely pairings: Elvis with the Good Witch, Dirk with Jennifer Lopez, Toto with Joan. (Or maybe in some other combination, as too much was going on to keep track.)
Even though the conventional version offers more mayhem, The Nutty Nutcracker offers more in the way of surprise. Thunder erupts, the room darkens, and in a flash of light Elvis takes over the scene with a flourish, gyrating like mad. Just before the party breaks up, Michael Jackson moon-walks, grabs his crotch, and gets everyone else in the mood to rock as the cast does the full routine to Thriller.
Since The Nutty Nutcracker depends on surprise, it is no wonder that bits from earlier versions worked better. After all, you can only turn the Nutcracker into a pitcher from the Texas Rangers once, with the Toy Soldiers his teammates. This year, the Nutcracker becomes Santa Claus and the Toy Soldiers his Elves. Santa and Elves are, alas, no match in battle against mice.
On the other hand, to have the Wicked Witch of the West emerge from snow and bat off Toto as he nips at her hem was an inspired choice. Equally inspired was to have the Kingdom of the Sweets taken over by the motley Occupy Wall Street crowd, complete with tents, blankets and debris. Oprah serves as mistress of ceremonies. Exactly where Arnold Schwarzenegger fits into the divertissements is anyone's guess, but to the music of "I'm Sexy and I Know It" the well-oiled and near-naked Arnold (Alexander Kotelenets)—clad only in shorts—struts, flexes and preens, and to show off his prowess, lifts Dorothy high overhead repeatedly, as though she were a 500-pound bar. (Dorothy, aka Carolyn Judson, probably weighs no more than 100.)
Just as funny was the Michael Flatley look-alike (Peter Zweifel) tearing across stage with feet skittering at hell-bent speed, arms punching. He's supported by six men doing a fast and furious version of Irish step-dancing. The much-anticipated variation of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Betsy McBride) and Nutcracker Prince (Carl Coomer) starts off promisingly, only to be rudely interrupted by the Black Swan (Leticia Oliveira) and Rothbart, along with the music from Swan Lake. The Swan shoves the Sugar Plum Fairy aside, awes the Prince, takes a swig of whisky, stops to grab a smoke, and gets rid of her rival for good by stabbing the Sugar Plum Fairy.
No wonder then that when Dorothy/Clara returns to her bed, she's due for a nightmare: Black Swan crawls in beside her, and a few feet away, the bloody Sugar Plum Fairy convulses in the last stages of death.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.