A&A Balletthe production of The Art Deco Nutcracker sumptuously illustrated that a dance company needs not a big name for having oversized talent, vision and creativity. Last weekend’s show at the Athenaeum Theater featured impressive choreography, stunning costumes, and a clever reimagining of the holiday season chestnut.
It was visually striking and very entertaining.
The company, based in the South Loop, is made up of young professionals and ballet students. It was founded in 2016 by Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik, who drew on talent from the big leagues: they were the founding artistic directors of Joffrey Academy and Joffrey Studio, and their professional panache was evident from the opening of the curtain.
The Art Deco Nutcracker was choreographed by Kremnev (who also performed the key role of Drosselmeyer) on a recording of the lush and enduring score of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He updates the scene from mid-19e century from Germany to 1920s America. Couples and families, carrying gifts, arrive at a house for a Christmas celebration, women in elegant dresses in a rainbow of colors, men (and boys) dressed in tuxedos.
The production follows the familiar story arc of The Nutcracker. Drosselmeyer captivates the party with his life-size mechanical dolls (played by live dancers) and gives a nutcracker painted like a soldier as a gift to Clara, the daughter of the party’s hosts. Brother Bratty Fritz breaks the nutcracker, which Drosselmeyer magically repairs.
When the guests leave, Clara falls asleep on a couch holding the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer conjures a fantastical dream landscape in which soldiers led by the Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King’s rodent army. The Nutcracker becomes a handsome prince, and after the snowflakes dance, he and Clara arrive in Candy Land, where they are entertained by dancers representing sweets from around the world. At the end, Drosselmeyer breaks the spell and Clara wakes up and kisses her nutcracker toy.
Within this framework, there have been countless reinterpretations of this piece, including the Joffrey BalletThe production of, created by Christopher Wheeldon and currently on stage at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, moves the stage to the Colombian City Exposition of 1893. Kremnev does the same for the 1920s, and more, and the results are delicious. (See our review of Joffrey’s Nutcracker.)
Kremnev introduces a new mechanical doll to the party scene: a devil, dressed in a bright red outfit. The work of production designer Gabriel Brandon-Hanson and wardrobe director Laura Skarich is an important part of the success of this production. The mice, often described as scabby and more rat-like, are furry and lifelike (and a troop of small children playing baby mice received a collective ‘aw’ from an audience crowded with relatives and friends of the artists. ). The Mouse King is defeated when Clara cold hits him with a gift-wrapped box, much less violent than the Nutcracker killing the beast with his sword in the traditional versions.
In the second act in the Land of Sweets, the Chinese segment representing tea includes a dancing dragon. The Arabic coffee section features stunning solos of a dancer wearing a sequined bodysuit and a turbaned dancer with an accessory snake entwined in her arms. The Russian section features dancers who wear red and white folk outfits topped with fur hats, instead of the commonly worn barley striped leotards.
After a beautiful flower dance, Mother Ginger arrives in her ginormous hoop skirt; in this production, the children do not come out from under her skirt, but come out of the folds while a rhythmic gymnastics troupe takes the stage. The scene ends with perhaps the biggest textual change: a dance written like a novel no two between the fairy Sugar Plum and her rider is instead performed with three male dancers – the Nutcracker Prince and the Arab and Russian soloists – sharing her attentions (her last jump into the arms of the three men was a nice touch).
All of the main performers on Saturday morning – Vonne Roden as Clara, Trinity Santoro as the Sugar Plum fairy, Aiden Moss as the Nutcracker, Kremnev as Drosselmeyer and Megan Wefel as the Flower Lead role – excelled. Dancers from small companies such as A&A often play multiple roles, and Ivan Aguayo awards a hat trick for playing a myopic and tipsy grandfather on the party stage, the Mouse King and the Russian Dancer.
The atmosphere at the Athenaeum was anything but stuffy, which is not always the case with ballet audiences.
A long time ago (I won’t say how long ago) my wife and I, on one of our first dates, attended a New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s famous version. Nutcracker (the one in which a giant Christmas tree rises in the rafters). Walking down a crowded staircase at the end, we heard a woman make the sublimely arrogant comment about a ballerina whose “arms were too long” for the role. It became a joke that went on for decades between us; At the end of a performance, one of us will turn to the other and say, âIt was good, but his arms were too longâ.
A&A Ballet The Art Deco Nutcracker was a real seasonal treat, and no one had their arms too long.
The next scheduled performance of the company, on May 14 at the Athenaeum, is a double program by Igor Stravinsky Fire Bird and Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-SaÃ«ns.