As a student in a pre-professional ballet school, one of the best parts of performing in company productions was getting to be in the midst of the action with the company dancers. In Nutcracker, for example—between my all-important moments of dancing glory (the two minute children's dance)—I'd eavesdrop on the party parents' conversations and (sometimes PG-13) jokes.
Even with the hazards of sweat flung from a pirouetting dancer's forehead, I often feel that audience members are missing out—watching a ballet from the front is rarely so intimate.
It seems I'm not alone in this thought. Two regional companies are looking to shake up the performance format with their immersive winter productions. With live music, cocktails, puppetry and up-close and personal party access, American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite and Wonderbound's Snow are sure to pique new interest.
American Contemporary Ballet's Sarah Bukowski as Marzipan. Photo by Art Lessman, Courtesy ACB.
American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite
American Contemporary Ballet, now in its seventh season, is premiering its unique Nutcracker production this year. Artistic director Lincoln Jones was initially reluctant to do a party scene. "For audiences today, especially audiences in Los Angeles where they don't really grow up with ballet," he says, party scene's "over-large acting" can be difficult to connect with.
Additionally, the performance space for the production's December 8 debut is the company's rehearsal home: the 32nd story of an L.A. skyscraper. "Given the lack of an official fourth wall with the proscenium, I thought it was an opportunity to do something entirely different."
His solution? Allow the audience to be part of the first act's party. They can move about the space and walk right up to the musicians playing a chamber composition of Tchaikovsky's score. Though there are partitioned sections for the mechanical dolls to do their thing, the party also includes some "dreamy carnival" activities audience members can partake in. (Jones didn't want to spoil the surprise, so L.A. audiences will have to wait and see what these include.)
Paradoxically, Jones also wasn't interested in sugar coating his Land of Sweets. He says that many Nutcracker productions are based off of the Alexandre Dumas version of the tale, which "takes the teeth out of [the story]." In contrast, he's hoping to challenge the audience with themes from the darker E.T.A. Hoffman story that came first. Rather than a sweet dream, comfortable to fall in to and easy to awaken from, Jones is more interested in the choice Hoffman poses: Should Marie (Clara in Dumas's adaptation) dispense with childhood fantasies and conform to the strict world awaiting her, or enter adulthood "with her imagination intact?"
Artists of Wonderbound in "Snow." Photo by Amanda Tipton, Courtesy Wonderbound.
Denver, Colorado-based Wonderbound does away with Nutcracker altogether. Snow, which opens on December 12, is part two of a three-part trilogy. (Winter debuted three years ago, Snow encores this year, and the third is yet to come.) Each production can stand on its own or be part of a year-to-year journey rotated over time.
And each is darker than your average holiday production. In creating his company's winter show, artistic director Garrett Ammon was more interested in the season's themes of "death and renewal" than its candy cane and tinsel traditions.
He also perfectly tailored his production for the young professional's date night. The company performs the 50-55-minute Snow twice per evening. (Scheduled on weeknights, so as not to compete with weekends' other performance and party obligations.) The first is an "appetizer" show, the second is "dessert"; Wonderbound works with local restaurants to provide the bites. Audience members can grab dinner at the partner eatery then head to company's garage space to nibble on dessert while watching the show, or they can reverse the order with appetizers beforehand.
If the food and beverage offerings aren't enough to entice, Snow is its own kind of wonderland with incorporated puppetry, projections, and live music by a local folk band. "Even if they know nothing about ballet," says Ammon, "people can still come to one of our performances and have many avenues of entry to be a full-fledged member of the audience." And once he lures you in, he may even rope you into some light audience participation.
Ammon says that with its folk and court-dancing origins, ballet used to be participatory. As an art form, it doesn't have to be rarefied.
American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite runs December 8–23.
Wonderbound's Snow runs December 12–21.