Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Madison Ballet's Nutty Nut's a Celebration of Silliness

                                                                                           © SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
A 132-year old ballerina, a rollerskating rat, a guy (just one) on ice, Frau Stahlbaum drunk as a skunk – what’s not to love about Madison Ballet’s campy Nutty Nut, a new city tradition that began last year? Lots of ballet companies across the country have taken to dedicating one night of Nutcracker’s two-week annual run to a spoof on the holiday classic – it breaks up the monotony for the dancers, and offers guffaws for hard-core fans.
If you’re not a balletomane in general and a follower of Madison Ballet in particular, though, maybe Nutty Nut’s not for you. One woman I talked to at intermission thought the “attempts at comedy” were annoying, and she found the ancient ballerina, creeping across the stage on a walker, “especially distasteful.”  A man in the crowd huffing its way up the parking ramp steps in the bitter cold after the show told his girlfriend he thought parts of Nutty Nut were funny, but if he’d known there’d be so much dancing he’d have stayed home. 
As for me, I was pretty much in stitches from the fake company bios in the program – though I can see how you wouldn’t get all the jokes if you didn’t have a ballet background – to the grand finale.
Notice I said “pretty much.” Half-gag commercials disrupted the flow; one or two might be funny, but the number in this production was excessive.  The canned score was, in spots, too fast. The handful of community celebs who generously lent themselves to this Nutcracker lampoon were cast in context, though some of their roles needed touches of fine tuning.  Still, the abundant laughter was exhilirating – a holiday celebration in itself. 
Clever pop-cultural references flew fast and furious throughout the production, and the way they were laid over the ballet, which managed to be its regal self despite the twists, turns and interruptions, was striking. 
The party scene was as chaotic as ever, though it cast off its straight-laced dullness in favor of bacchanalian antics, a definite improvement. Cody Olsen, Jackson Warring and Andrew Erickson were deliciously loony in their burlesque dance number to “It’s Raining Men.”  The parents’ mazurka was almost madcap, done to “We Go Together,” that goofy tune from the musical Grease.  And the nutcracker doll was replaced by a stuffed toy fox, which seemed like nothing at all but turned out to be a brilliant joke that packed its punchline in the finale.
In Clara’s nightmare scene, Sam White (in leather jacket and sunglasses), attempting awkward little ballet steps he’d never do as Drosselmeyer, was both funny and touching.  Instead of baby mice and tin soldiers, chickens and a cow paraded past Clara’s bed.  And the Nutcracker come to life (Brian Roethlisberger) wore fox ears and a fox tail. Do you get it yet?  (I didn’t). 
After winning his battle against the cast of Duck Dynasty, which replaced the traditonal rats, the Fox Cavalier found Clara (Marguerite Luksik) in bed with the cow, but no matter – off they danced to the Land of Snow.  The snow pas de deux and snow corps – epitomes of classical dance – were elegant, despite three hilarious gags, all repeats from last year, that took place around them and which define what Nutty Nut is all about.  In the shadows a lone ice fisherman sat on a bucket, dangling his line into the orchestra pit, completely unaware of the ethereal dancing behind him.  (I’m not sure which community celeb the fisherman was, but his part was woven seamlessly into Nutty Nut’s fabric).  The 132-year old ballerina – in real life Madison Ballet’s Ballet Master Sarah Melli – did her walker-aided stage crossing under falling snow, out-doing by orders of magnitude Ballet Nacional de Cuba prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonzo, who, blind as a bat, stopped performing at 74.  Sorry, disgruntled audience member, but there's no way anyone who knows that the average age of retirement for a ballet dancer is somewhere between 29 and 34 -- or anyone who’s ever loved ballet enough to keep doing it in middle age (or later!) -- could find Melli and her walker anything but outrageously funny.  And last but not least, as the curtain fell on Act I, a rat – have I ever mentioned how crazy I am about the Nutcracker rats? – roller-skated across the stage.
Act II opened as an episode of The Hunger Games, fought by three ballerinas with weapons pilfered from Dracula’s props.  The winner, Marguerite Luksik, got to be – as she is in the real Nutcracker – the Sugarplum Fairy.  Her music was mangled by a string of false starts, causing her to stamp her feet, but in between tantrums her variation was crisp and clean.  Anthony Femath swapped Spanish for an exuberant Tejano take on Swedish DJ / songwriter Avicii’s 2013 chart-topper “Wake Me Up;” Jessica Mackinson and Jacob Ashley did Arabian-as-disco to Leon Russel’s “Song for You.” 
Twin pinnacles of supreme silliness left tears in my eyes.  One was Andrew Erickson, in a red dress pooched out over a pillow pregnancy, following along like a loopy lady behind the Thai dancers.  The other was Phillip Ollenberg, leaping high in pearls and a pale, wispy wig, reprising his 2012 role as Betty White in the Russian solo.  Men dancing in drag aren't inherently funny; it's the high humor with which these numbers were delivered, and the way that made them look, that put them over the top.
                           © SKepecs
“Waltz of the Flowers”'s elastic Dewdrop, Rachelle Butler, was buzzed several times by Madison Ballet Artistic Director W. Earle Smith wearing a bumblebee suit that looked utterly adorable.
And then, for the sparkling pop-culture grand finale, there was Roethlisberger, in his foxy accoutrements, with the whole cast doing the dance from the viral Europop YouTube hit of the year, Norwegian duo Ylvis’ absurd and innocent “What Does the Fox Say?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jofNR_WkoCE
I’m still laughing.  Merry Christmas.
                                                                                              © SKepecs

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