By MIKE CHAIKEN
When a piece of art reaches the point where it is ingrained into the cultural landscape, it’s inevitable that creative individuals will be tempted to tweak the original or pay homage to it.
Think of all the reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s works that have transported the original tales to different time periods.
“The Nutcracker” ballet dates back to the 19th century. Given the amount of time since its genesis, there should be no surprise that ballet companies have retooled the old warhorse.
For five years now, the CONNEtic Dance has offered up an amusing, cheeky, and clever interpretation of the classic ballet with its “Nutcracker Suite and Spicy.” The show, which opens this year on Dec. 12 at the Wadsworth Atheneum, has transformed the opening party sequence to a modern day “Ugly Sweater” party. “The Waltz of the Snowflakes” finds the company pairing off with Pilates balls. There also other creative moments that clearly state that this is not your great-great grandma’s “Nutcracker.”
The mastermind behind this wacky “Nutcracker” is Carolyn Paine, the creative director for CONNetic.
“The Nutcracker” is literally ingrained in her genetic code, explained Carolyn. “My parents actually got engaged at Boston Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker.’”
And, as Carolyn explained it, “Nutcrackers” were plentiful in her childhood.
“I grew up in Boston and studied at Boston Ballet and truthfully I hardly remember the first time I saw ‘The Nutcracker.’ I know I saw it before I auditioned for ‘The Nutcracker’ when I was 7, which was the youngest you could be to audition.”
“I performed in ‘The Nutcracker’ in Boston every year from that first year until I graduated from high school so 11 years,” said Carolyn.
“Since then I have performed in various productions all over and this year actually marks my 25th ‘Nutcracker’ production, including the five years now with my own company CONNetic Dance.”
With all those “Nutcrackers” dotting her history, what did Carolyn like about the piece?
“I loved ‘The Nutcracker’ because it really represented all that is magical about the holiday season that makes us love that time of year.”
“It is actually kind of a silly story—a little girl gets an antiquated kitchen appliance that comes to life to save her in a midnight battle against giant rodents and then (The Nutcracker) kidnaps her to a land filled with people from all over the world dressed as desserts.”
“But, at the heart of it is the idea of experiencing and believing in magic, even if it is just for fleeting moments,” said Carolyn.
“Also the Tchaikovsky score for ‘The Nutcracker’ is a work of art in itself,” said Carolyn.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is such a classic and is done all over the world and it is so neat because each company, each director, takes this silly story and transforms it with their own interpretation. And I love seeing different interpretations that this story and music inspire,” the CONNetic Dance creative director explained.
For five years now, Carolyn has counted herself among the directors have given “The Nutcracker” revamp.
“When I started CONNetic Dance, I never really saw it as a company suited to doing a ‘Nutcracker.’ It is a small company and my initial goal was to just use it as forum to create contemporary works,” she explained.
“After doing a successful full length work based on a contemporary ballet adaption of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ I began to become more ambitious and one summer day following that show… I came up with the idea of doing a contemporary ‘Nutcracker.’ I wanted to do something that held true to some of the tradition but was funny, quirky, fresh, and unlike anything people had seen,” explained Carolyn.
“I figured the audiences would give it a try and hopefully embrace it because it would be just a cooler and updated version of the holiday ballet favorite,” said Carolyn.
When she approached the dancers in her company about her vision, Carolyn said they “were excited and totally supportive and on board.”
“I spent a lot of time planning and creating the characters, the look, the various dance styles, and the feel of the production,” said Carolyn.
The hard work paid off.
“One night after a show the first year, an audience member came up to me and said ‘You breathed life into a badly beaten dead horse.’ I loved that.”
“Nutcracker Suite and Spicy” opens with an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party for the traditional party sequence.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” Carolyn said of the segment.” I had chosen to set this production in present day Hartford and I wanted the party scene to capture the essence of adults enjoying a spirited holiday party. This posed the challenge of how to costume the scene to make it look modern but to make it look cohesive— not like the dancers are just wearing what they came to the theatre in on stage.”
“While brainstorming what people wear to holiday parties, (I thought) that it would be hilarious to have it be an ugly Christmas sweater party.”
As for the use of the exercise balls in “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” Carolyn said, “It is probably my favorite. When coming up with ideas to make my ‘Nutcracker’ non-traditional, the snow scene presented problems. The music for ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ is so beautiful. It’s definitely my favorite in the ‘Nutcracker’ score… But I had to think of a way to make it very different than the classical version.”
“I began to think of fun ways to express snow through dance and at first I was thinking of making it a glittering waltzing snow ball with couples all dressed in white, but the words ‘snow ball’ jumped out at me and I realized how amazing and different it would be to literally use snow balls,” said Carolyn.
Carolyn said she did some research to find out if something like that had been done before. But she came up empty. So it was all systems go.
“I gathered some of the dancers to help me workshop what we could do with giant pearly white Pilates balls as our partners,” said Carolyn. “There was a lot of bruising and funny falls, and it took months of work the first year to finish the choreography for eight dancers and eight balls. It is the hardest thing I have ever danced in and the hardest thing I’ve ever choreographed. It takes so much athleticism and strength on the part of each dancer as well as careful rehearsing to keep everything in sync.”
For audiences coming to the 2014 edition of “Nutcracker Suite and Spicy,” Carolyn said, they will love how much the production has grown.
As part of the fifth anniversary production, Carolyn said CONNetic Dance is extending the fun all over.
For instance, Middletown’s NoRA cupcake will be selling three signature “Nutcracker Suite & Spicy” cupcakes in their shop. (NoRA also will be offering these cupcakes free during intermission at all three performances in Hartford.) There will be happy hours at Nixs on Front Street, Hartford in December where patrons can enjoy “Nutcracker Suite & Spicy” cocktails to get in the holiday spirit. And audience members can join the dance company at Nixs on opening night, Friday, Dec. 12, for a red carpet party following the performance. Tickets are only $15 and that includes one free Onyx cocktail. (Onyx is the moonshine created by Bristol’s own Adam von Gootkin.) CONNetic Dance also has partnered the Hartford Hilton offering other specials for “Nutcracker” fans, including a “Nutcracker” brunch at the M&M Bistro before the annual Ugly Sweater Matinee (patrons are invited to wear their favorite ugly sweater) on Sunday, Dec. 14.
“Nutcracker Suite and Spicy” by the CONNetic Dance will be performed Friday, Dec. 12 and Saturday, Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Aetna Theatre at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford. For tickets, go to CONNeticDance.com.