With witty writing and titillating choreography, "Visions of Sugarplums: A Burlesque Nutcracker" takes a delightfully feminist slant on Tchaikovsky's ballet, skipping over the main story line and heading straight to the land of sweets, where boas, sequins and skin abound.
The show, presented by director Lily Verlaine and host Nadine DuBois, offers powerful feminist and pro-LGBT messaging. It celebrates the human body — male and female, large and small. In contrast to much of contemporary dance and a lot of ballet, the audience gets to revel in performers with ample, voluptuous bodies as well as those with hardly any curves at all, recognizing that both can be extremely sexy.
"Sugarplums" is also surprisingly tame, relying on innuendo and teasing more than raunchiness. You'd probably see more skin just turning on the TV. The performers don't exploit the female body as much as empower it, lauding female pleasure while leaving room for people of any gender and sexual orientation to join in the fun. (There are male performers who strip down too, for equality's sake.)
As emcee, DuBois sparkles, taking the audience on an irreverent journey into the Sugarplum forest with a suggestive aside for every interlude. Her charismatic stage presence and comedic timing affords a delectable ride, and she's got a great voice to boot, though it would be better if she had a live band to accompany her.
DuBois introduces each of the acts, from extravagantly choreographed group numbers to wonderful featured performers, like the tantalizing and hilarious Queenie Von Curves, who brings down the house with her tassel-swirling Snow Queen.
Unfortunately, the show sabotages itself with its use of cultural appropriation. While there is some diversity in the cast, there are also instances of cringeworthy exoticism — most egregiously in an act featuring performers in Asian-style outfits, complete with parasols. It seems that in 2015, two years after the Ordway was the target of protests for "Miss Saigon," we would have gotten beyond this sort of dated performance style.
To be fair, Tchaikovsky's original ballet also features European notions of Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dancers, so many "Nutcrackers" around the Twin Cities also perpetuate stereotypes without question or deconstruction. But as progressive, feminist and anti-heteronormative as "Visions of Sugarplums" is, it still seems like a missed opportunity.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis dance critic and arts journalist.