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New traditions: "The Nutcracker"

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Katie Dehler is featured in the companys new production of The Nutcracker.
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A decade ago, “The Nutcracker” was the embodiment of Aspen Ballet. Aspen Ballet then was simply the Aspen Ballet School, and the annual Christmastime presentation of “The Nutcracker” at the Wheeler Opera House showcased how the local tiny dancers, dressed as mice and bumblebees, were picking up their pirouettes and leaps.But a decade has been like an eternity for the Aspen Ballet School, which has since became Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a professional touring company with ties to two arts-minded communities. And while the company has given its “Nutcracker” the periodic jolt – bringing in guest dancers, expanding the sets and moving to the larger Aspen District Theatre – ASFB co-artistic directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty watched as the production lagged further behind the company’s other achievements.”As the company grew, ‘The Nutcracker’ production stayed the same,” said Mossbrucker, who has guided the ASFB to performances at the country’s premiere dance venues, including New York’s Joyce Theater and the Jacob’s Pillow festival in Massachusetts. “We watched the level of the company grow and grow, and ‘The Nutcracker’ seemed more and more distant from the identity of the company.””We wanted to create a ‘Nutcracker’ that reflected what the company has become known for,” agreed Malaty, “and make it like one of our contemporary mixed programs. The eclecticness and inventiveness of the company was never matched by ‘The Nutcracker.'”

Two years ago, Mossbrucker and Malaty began their strategizing in earnest. They brought in Boston scenic designer Roger Lavoie to see the old “Nutcracker,” which had been given a Western flair, in fitting with the former setting at the Wheeler. Lavoie was impressed enough to sign on as a principal architect of the face-lift.The new “Nutcracker” debuted last week in Santa Fe. The production makes its Aspen debut with performances at the District Theatre Friday through Sunday, Dec. 17-19.Lavoie’s design work alone suggests more than a touch-up. Gone are the soft canvas drops; in their place are wooden sets, hand-painted in lush detail by Lavoie himself. “Nothing is floppy painted canvases,” said Mossbrucker. “It’s so beautiful and detailed. And because we’re in such small theaters, people see the sets up close. They see those details.”The sets were the first step in a radical transformation. The $200,000 makeover – financed largely by donations to the New Nutcracker Fund from Kelley and Mark Purnell, Bebe and David Schweppe, Sherry and Eddie Wachs, Carolyn Cox, Diane Disney Miller, Alpine Bank and Bulgari – extends from choreography to special effects to costumes.

No sacred cow has been spared: Clara’s “Land of the Sweets” dream sequence, a staple of virtually every production of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story, has been ditched in favor of a carousel-themed reverie. There has even been a reworking of Tchaikovsky’s renowned score by ASFB dancer – and trained musician and composer – Sam Chittenden.”Sam layered sound effects and other enhancements over the score,” said Mossbrucker. “During the carousel sequence, it sounds like a carousel. The battle scene has special effects – wind, guns, mice screaming.”But it’s very subtle. People may not notice it.”Visually, the changes are not so subtle. “The Nutcracker” now features flying circus artists, special effects, folk dancing from Bali and Russia, and Argentine tango dancing. And in at least one section, the sound enhancements will be hard to ignore. The Arabian scene – which now features a trapeze act flying from silk ropes – is “totally redone, very techno,” according to Mossbrucker.



Their new $200,000 baby is, of course, not something meant to be confined to Aspen and Santa Fe. The ASFB is already working on a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas tour for next year. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but Mossbrucker and Malaty acknowledged it would be something well beyond a regional tour.When they do bring their “Nutcracker” to far-off audiences, the ASFB expects that people will remember the company as much as the production.”With ‘The Nutcracker,’ people go to see ‘The Nutcracker,’ not the ASFB or any other company that’s doing it,” said Malaty. “But ours is unique, unlike any other ‘Nutcracker,’ and we’re trying to make a mark. We want people to see our look and our style.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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