George Balanchine staged his first iconic performance of The Nutcracker in New York City back in 1954. His choreography rightly became the gold standard, but the city has changed since then.
Enter the Brooklyn Ballet, which has reinterpreted the holiday story to reflect its home into The Brooklyn Nutcracker, mixing the borough’s history as an old Dutch colony with contemporary Flatbush Avenue.
“This production is very much attached to Brooklyn and its ethnic diversity,” says Brooklyn Ballet director and choreographer Lynn Parkerson.
“Instead of the traditional Arabian dance or the marzipan dance, I have a belly dancer and Caribbean dancers. Herr Drosselmeyer is played by a hip-hop dancer,” she says of one of the Nutcracker’s main roles. “It totally works for his character: the magical crazy uncle doing pop and lock moves.”
As well as updating the dance moves, this production adds hi-tech touches.
“The snow scene is normally a very white tutu and classic pas de deux, but we’re using costumes with motion sensors,” she says. “The LEDs shimmer with the movement, but when it stops they slowly stop, just like snow falling.”
In between this two-act ballet, a Native American hoop dancer from a New Mexican Pueblo tribe will perform.
The ballet’s fantastical story and the necessary suspension of disbelief makes it open to existential exploration, Parkerson explains.
“The Nutcracker is this crazy ballet. It’s already got all that richness in it. This production is all about melding styles in a classical ballet and finding new ways to bring people in.”
That said, it’s still The Nutcracker. “It’s still those scenes everyone knows and loves,” she adds. “It’s still the same score Tchaikovsky wrote, but the hip-hop and Caribbean dancers respond to it in a different way, and you hear the music in a different way.”
In her career spanning the Boston and Chicago ballets, Parkerson has performed in many Nutcrackers. “As a dancer, The Nutcracker is what you do. But I hadn’t choreographed it before,” she says. “As a ballet company we wanted to do a Nutcracker, but we had to make it great. It has to be fantastic if you’re performing it in New York.”
The idea for The Brooklyn Nutcracker took root in 2010, when Parkerson choreographed a Nutcracker segment to as accompany a tree-lighting ceremony. The company’s limited staging of the production last year sold out, so additional dates have been added this time around.
“I saw how people watching were so completely engaged in the dancing. It expanded from there with added segments,” she says.
“If you want the traditional Nutcracker, it’s out there. But people seem to like the variation and the diversity this production brings. We got standing ovations and it sold out.”
The Brooklyn Nutcracker runs from Dec. 7-16 at Irondale Center, 85 S. Oxford St., Fort Greene. Tickets are $25-$92, available at brooklynballet.org.