As you go about your The Nutcracker planning this year, especially if you have kids, you must make a stop at Dallas Children's Theater for the returning favorite presented by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts.
This Nutcracker is not to be considered a substitute for any of those myriad ballet performances around town, but rather as a companion piece. In fact, you won't see much of the Sugar Plum Fairy or pirouetting with Burks' rod puppets, done in the Eastern European style of black theater, with the puppeteers (Sally Fiorello, Douglass Burks, Becky Burks Keenan and Ziggy Renner) in the darkness behind the puppets.
You do get a puppet of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who at the start of the show is composing an opera. But there's this music that won't leave his head, so he decides to make it into a ballet of E.T.A. Hoffman's novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. When he gets to the music we know as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, he needs an instrument that no one has heard before. A visit to an instrument maker in Paris, Mustelle, reveals the invention of a piano-like instrument, the celesta, which makes airy, bell-like sounds.
[Here's that music from a recording by the Orchestra of the Kirov Opera]
Don't worry, this Nutcracker doesn't spend too much time on a "making of" backstory (this version is adapted by B. Wolf and directed by Kathy Burks).
We soon get to Clara and her adventures with the nutcracker doll, the soldiers, mice and her journey with the Nutcracker prince to the magical land where she meets the international dolls and has some time in the land of sweets.
What's remarkable about the puppet version, something that you can't get with human dancers, is an exceptionally imaginative thread with the international toys. The Arabian gives us a blue genie, and the Chinese features a traditional lion dance. In the Russian section, the puppets doing the Gopal dance is a feat of puppetry.
There are many other whimsical additions, including music notes dancing in the air, bouncing balls and ornaments, scurrying mice and a magic carpet. A few sections are done with stunning shadow puppetry. The rod puppets of the humans (Clara, Fritz, Drosselmeier, Tchaikovsky, etc.) are exquisitely crafted.
When I saw it, a mother and her young son sat to my right. Before it started, the boy told his mom "I hate ballet!" But he was quiet throughout the show, no doubt caught up in the magic of imagination.