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Nutcracker Gets Jazz Makeover

LustigDanceTheater in New Brunswick will showcase A Jazzy Nutcracker Dec. 14. Photo credit: Ron Lessard.

Ballet-lovers know well the story of a young girl who dreams of a magical journey with her special Christmas gift, but with the premiere of a production featuring jazz music, an intergalactic battle scene, a Sergeant Pepper reference and a special appearance by Santa, the Nutcracker tale has never been performed quite like this.

Graham Lustig, artistic director of LustigDanceTheatre in New Brunswick, has choreographed traditional versions of the ballet before — a production created during his tenure as artistic director of American Repertory Ballet (also in New Brunswick) was performed for a decade—but this year, with his own company, he’s trying something new.

In A Jazzy Nutcracker, Lustig draws upon his experience growing up in London in the 1960s, maintaining the same basic plot line and most of the same melodies as the classic Tchaikovsky version, but setting the story in a different time and place, and to a new jazz score.

“[London] was a very cool place to be when I was a kid,” Lustig says. “There was the juxtaposition of The Space Age, which was upon us… and how that inspired fashion, and thinking, and creativity.” Much of that fashion and creativity is embedded throughout his new ballet.

“The ’60s were a very rich period of dance… You have all of that freestyle dancing…the twist, the mash potato, the hitchhiker, the Egyptian, so a lot of those steps I was able to weave into the party scene,” explains Lustig.

Allusions to dance pioneers of the time like Bob Fosse, Matt Mattox and Alwin Nikolais are dotted throughout as well. “That gives it a sense of period beyond just the sets and the costumes,” Lustig says.

A major element of this Jazzy Nutcracker adaptation is, understandably, the jazz music. Paul Undreiner, an educator at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, composed a new score for Lustig’s ballet.

“For purists, they’ll certainly still recognize a majority of the music,” says Undreiner. “I tried to incorporate a lot of different jazz elements underneath these melodies, whether salsa or swing or bop or ragtime. There’re a lot of different styles that go into the ballet.”

The familiar Tchaikovsky score, which premiered in 1892, is in a very different style than jazz — a fact that presented interesting challenges for Undreiner. “I had to really pick apart and analyze the Tchaikovsky,” he shares. “There are certainly a lot of places in the Tchaikovsky that are in triple meter or in compound meter — rhythms that aren’t quite as common in jazz. So some of them, I literally adapted rhythmically. I changed the whole meter, so the tune is still there, but you hear it in a very different way.”

Lustig and Undreiner hope that this new twist on the Christmas classic will become LustigDanceTheatre’s holiday tradition, a keystone for many non-profit dance companies.

An annual Nutcracker production, for many non-profit dance companies, is a cash cow of sorts, providing a reliable income boost to help the bottom line. In a facet of the field that has been referred to as “the economics of Nutcracker,” tickets, sponsorships and merchandise sold around these productions can help companies offset the costs of performing works the rest of the year that are newer, more daring or less known. Additionally, children performing roles in these productions, often from a ballet school associated with the company or other schools in the area, mean built-in ticket sales to proud family and friends. And for the community, an annual Nutcracker production provides a place for fans of the ballet to see it as part of their personal holiday tradition.

“There are certain important works that are typically guaranteed box offices. In the opera world, you could say that’s some of the Puccini works like Madame Butterfly or La Boheme, and in the world of theater, it’s typically Christmas Carol, and in the world of ballet, it’s Nutcracker,” explains Lustig. “Typically it’s a box office winner, and everyone needs one of those!”

As for creating a new, jazz version, Lustig hopes his piece will fill a void for dance-lovers. “There are many, many different Nutcracker productions to be seen in the tri-state area, and I would say 99.9 percent of them are Tchaikovsky-based classical productions,” he explains. “I just thought it would be very refreshing to offer patrons a different, alternative version that is still full of life and energy, and still romantic… funny… beautiful and … moving.”

While the Dec. 14 performances of A Jazzy Nutcracker will be the first, they won’t be the last. “I’m definitely hoping that students [performing in the show] will return and audiences will return, and we will grow together,” Lustig says.