What happens when you take the plot of a familiar holiday fixture and smash it with one of the most bizarre plots in all of Western literature?
You get one big adventure, and it's called "Nutcracker in Wonderland." Presented by Ballet Co.Laboratory at Ted Mann Concert Hall last weekend, the story juxtaposed Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" with E.T.A. Hoffman's "Nutcracker and Mouse King," using Tchaikovsky's music. Combining the plots made the story even more like a hallucinogenic dreamscape than either of the sources.
Like the original, there was still a Nutcracker presented as a gift, and there was still a wild adventure that took place in a fantastical land far away.
Javan Mngrezzo stole the show as the occasionally break-dancing Drosselmeyer in this version and visits as a family friend rather than uncle. He was also great as the Mad Hatter later on. Some of the Wonderland characters, who showed up in the second act, also gave delightful performances, including director Zoe Emilie Henrot, whose performance of the Queen of Hearts was a stunner.
The concept of Ballet Co.Laboratory's production changed up the usual Nutcracker fare taken up by local ballet companies all over. Its popularity is enduring for its score, the imaginative world it creates and perhaps because the ballet has become a kind of proxy recital for companies that have attached educational programs, where young students perform with pro dancers.
Ballet Co.Laboratory continued that tradition even as it decontextualized some of the more stereotypical parts. In the original ballet, as Clara and the Prince have a celebratory tea at his palace, a selection of dances from around the world take place for the party. The Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances are trope-filled and feed the stereotypes. Ballet Co.Laboratory addressed this by having those sections of music performed by Wonderland characters.
Still, some of the old tropes crept in. The Arabian dance music in this version featured a slinky caterpillar dance, with three dancers wearing genie pants and halter tops, nodding slightly to a belly dancer look. The Chinese dance, also featuring Wonderland characters, contained acrobatics, vaguely recalling the original.
The production's most compelling moments turn out to be the most intimate. The friendship/burgeoning queer romance between Clara, played by Sage Engle-Laird, and Alice, played by Sabriyya Dean, unraveled subtly and with nuance. The audience got a glimpse at the power of feminine curiosity and friendship. That's the most original take-away of the show.