Monday, November 19, 2012
Theater review: The Nutcracker puppet edition at Dallas Children’s Theater
This timeless play combines several past renditions in a innovative children's spectacular.
DALLAS Why do certain shows return year after year and audiences never get tired of them? Every Christmas theaters present a plethora of Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers and adaptations of each and yet people buy tickets and see those shows with zeal.
Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts brings back its adaptation of The Nutcracker this year using their handmade puppets with guidance from Master Puppeteer Kathy Burks. But watch a performance at the Dallas Children’s Theater Studio and you’ll see why this perennial show is so popular. It’s in the faces of young children anticipating this timeless story about Clara and her Nutcracker. Listen to the gleeful children around you and you’ll understand why Burks and her company have such a passion for their work.
B. Wolf adapted the Burks’ production from the George Balanchine ballet which came from E.T.A. Hofmann’s story of the Nutcracker, as retold by Alexander Dumas. If that seems confusing then let’s start with some history. Kathy Burks and her company are all about education and this is an interesting tale I never knew.
Peter Tchaikovsky lived in the last half of 19th century Russia and wrote his ballet for stage in 1892. Tchaikovsky, of course, wrote other iconic works including Romeo and Juliet, 1812 Overture, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.
The story for The Nutcracker ballet was originally written by E.T.A Hoffman, called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. But since it needed to be a ballet the story had to be impressionistic, not textual, and had to be simplified for dance. Hoffman lived at the turn of the 19th century, a generation before Tchaikovsky. His textual story was adapted into a new piece in 1840 by Alexandre Dumas. That would be the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. His adaptation was called The Tale of the Nutcracker and this was the story for the original ballet.
Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa choreographed The Nutcracker for the Russian stage in 1892. Petipa, considered by some the most influential ballet choreographer, contracted with Tchaikovsky to write his famous suite. And until the 1950s, Petipa’s ballet was the one usually performed everywhere until The New York City Ballet gave its first performance in 1954, staged by George Balanchine. This began a perennial parade of productions that carry on to this day. And it was this version that was adapted by B. Wolf for Burks’ Nutcracker.
Wolf started her story with Tchaikovsky himself, well actually a puppet, talking about writing his famous music. Interrupted suddenly by the Puppeteer of Puppets, he learned this performance contained very little ballet. It was, after-all, a puppet show. She explained there are many ways to tell this story. And this led into the story of The Nutcracker, which gets back to those children who really wouldn’t care about all this history, but opening with Mr. T gave them an introduction to puppetry and prepared them for what came next.
The Burks puppeteers use the Black Theatre technique — rods controlling puppets are virtually invisible and controlled by black-clad puppeteers shrouded and shadowed in a black background. Front lighting spotlighted the puppets on stage. This form of puppetry gave them an amazing range of movement as they flew across the three side-by-side puppet windows. I can only say, according to the many young eyes in that audience, that it all worked. A few of us adults were also glued to the scenes by physics-defying dances, flying, and acrobatics by a range of puppets including Clara and the main story characters but also a large number of objects including birds, furniture, flowers and things I couldn’t identify. But they all meshed perfectly together. How those four puppeteers kept all those pieces moving at the same time was, well, magical. I could tell by gasps and squeals all around me.
Puppetry is an art form which argues against an idea that actors must “feel” the feelings of their characters in order for an audience to believe it. These inanimate objects had no feelings, no facial movement, no moving eyes or mouths facial tics, or close-ups. They simply moved with intention through their story and we felt as if they were angry, sad, afraid, or happy. It’s extraordinary to get the full feeling and theme of the story from a bunch of paper, wood, and cloth.
Sound and lighting were an important technique in The Nutcracker. Voices were recorded by the actors listed in the cast list. There were no onstage actors. Music was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s, perfectly timed with the puppets. Wolf created a sound design along with the story probably because they were so tightly linked in this adaptation that tells the Tchaikovsky story as well as Clara’s story. Lighting precisely coordinated with puppet movement focused our attention on those little objects moving about in the darkness. Sally Fiorello created a stage setting and light design that made the puppets stand out as if they were holographic in a sea of two-dimensional black. I can’t say who controlled which puppets but Sally Fiorello, Douglass Burks, Becky Burks Keenan and Ziggy Renner were as precise as one can get without seeming mechanical. Dare I say artistic? If the definition of “artistic” is to “affect the audience,” then these are true artists.
It was during Clara’s trip to the Kingdom of Sweets with her prince Nutcracker that young children’s imaginations really took flight. This was a time of no dialog or narration, just beautiful strains of Tchaikovsky’s music. This was the dance of the sugar plum fairies or, more accurately, candy characters and funny puppets. There was a genie and dancing balls and birds and flowers, moving to the different motifs in Mr. T’s suite. Children saw many delights but especially loved the Baryshnikov-poodle, Burks’ and Wolf’s homage to the ballet that began it all. It was a special treat for this audience of children. I liked it too.
I was there to evaluate and report on my experience but my opinion means little to the kids in this audience. They were entranced with wide-eyed wonder. They had no problem suspending belief and watching this tale unfold beautifully before them. It’s what they do. They use their imagination. They were the critics and they gave this show a resounding thumbs-up. I agree.
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