It's officially Nutcracker season, the time of year when everyone and their mouse jumps aboard the Sugar Plum Express, but can't actually tell you what a sugar plum is. The production is so widespread in the U.S. that nobody even asks anymore.
This year, Suchu Dance pays hilarious tribute to the ridiculousness of the ballet. Shchelkunchik is their deconstructed take on the twisted and untamed original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." In true Nutcracker form, the storyline is wildly illogical, but in this show, Suchu acknowledges it. During the Nutcracker's epic battle with the mouse king, a voice floats in over the speaker. "I never did get this part," it says, interrupting. "Somebody explain what's going on here!"
And Suchu Dance does explain, in the most creative way.
Using voice narration and props and truly impressive acting, they tell the real, convoluted story of the Nutcracker, one totally unknown to average audiences. It's sidesplitting and illuminating, right down to the explanation of why the Nutcracker is such a player with local village ladies.
The show is set partly to Tchaikovsky's original score and partly to a weird synth pop version, and much of its pleasure comes from the music. Shchelkunchik has more of a soft spot for mice than the rodent-terrorizing version we see today. The mice, clad in Mickey Mouse-esque ears, aren't ascribed the evil music. Here, a duet of mice are given the delicate snowflake music as they dance their sweet and tragic end, holding paws and bourréeing feebly together, one with a mouse trap dangling from her skirt.
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The dancing here can't be seen anywhere else. Jennifer Wood, the company's artistic director, took inspiration from YouTube clips of ballet dancers in the late 1800s to the 1920s, when dancers put more emphasis on emotion than technicality. The result is delirious and astonishing. Dancers wildly shake their hips, perpetually bend their legs as if broken, and spin with their arms out like children on a playground. Suchu revives what dance used to look like, and they don't even have to try to crack up audiences -- especially when two guys dance Arabian, lifting choreography directly from an Anna Pavlova archive.
Suchu pokes its fun at the well-known choreography of The Nutcracker, too. In a loose re-creation of the snow scene, where the corps leaps across the stage opposite a partner, one of the dancers outright pushes over her crossing buddy. And it would be an injustice to describe the grand pas de deux, the outlandish epic climax of the show. Just go.
Shchelkunchik is a fresh drink of water to those who have seen The Nutcracker a thousand times. Not that it's mean-spirited, or even a satire. If ballet dancers were given free rein on the stage after a 25-performance run of the never-dying Nutcracker, they'd probably perform something that looks just like Shchelkunchik. And if Suchu's performance is any indication, they'd have a lot of fun.
Shchelkunchik runs through December 4 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston. Tickets are $17-20; purchase them online at www.suchudance.org.