‘Shchelkunchik’ breathes new life into the holiday classic
by Marene Gustin
Photo montage by LSarah Creative
Houston Ballet is into its almost endless run of the holiday classic The Nutcracker, and just about every other ballet company is doing its own version of the sugary-sweet Christmastime dance. So, do we really need another Nut?
Yes, yes we do. If it’s Suchu Dance’s Shchelkunchik.
For those of you rolling your eyes and feeling a sugar overdose coming on, don’t. Suchu Dance, founded in 1998 by artistic director and choreographer Jennifer Wood, is one of those exciting, offbeat arts organizations that Houston is known for.
If you’ve ever been to the summer Big Range Dance Festival or caught one of Suchu’s performances at Barnevelder Theater, you know that Wood’s abstract and often quirky dances are a mainstay of Houston’s alternative dance community. So, for Suchu to take on the beloved holiday story seems, well, odd. Why would Wood do it?
“Brain damage?” she posits.
Actually, when the December dates opened up at Barnevelder, Wood decided she needed something to challenge herself. And what could be better than a classic narrative holiday ballet?
“I know some people are going to think I’m trampling on their favorite ballet,” Wood admits, “but I just had to do it. I don’t know if it will be a big hit. I’m not even sure what a big hit is in modern dance, but it would be awesome if we could fill the seats.”
Wood, a former member of Farrell Dyde Dance Theatre, Run Around Sue Dance Company, and co-founder of The Duplex performing space, was a semi-finalist in the international Recontres Chorégraphiques competition in 2002 and a recipient of two individual artist grants from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, the forerunner of the Houston Arts Alliance.
So she has a lot of dance cred—but tackling a holiday tradition is something she’s never done before.
She began the process by going back to the source, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
“When I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s so much in it.’ Why would anyone think this story was a good idea to make into a dance in the first place? There are way too many characters and fantastical elements, it’s too long and complicated to make a coherent ballet—where, remember, words are not used, so it is difficult to explain to an audience that we are now going into the past for a flashback—and a large part of it is a long backstory explaining how the prince was turned into the nutcracker.”
Which basically means if you’ve seen any of the myriad ballet versions of this tale, don’t go to Suchu’s Shchelkunchik thinking it’s going to be anything like those. Because it won’t be.
For one thing, Wood is using 10 dancers instead of a cast of thousands (including children). There also won’t be any flying cooks or growing Christmas trees. A lot of the elements will be represented as projections, including some text. And while Wood says the dance is comical, it will also embody a lot of the dark and evil elements in the original story.
“I knew I did not want to create a mockery of the traditional ballet version,” says Wood. “That would be too easy a target, and not very nice of me. This will be a Suchu Dance take on the original story. We are not planning to satirize the ballet in its current form, the one that is seen by audiences all over the United States during the Christmas season. We do, though, reserve the right to mock and satirize many, many things.”
One of those things they do intend to mock is the dancing style from a century ago. Wood researched photos from the original ballet performed in 1892 and then branched out to old film footage of various dancing styles, including a belly-dancing film from the 1880s. She says she’s long been amused by these old films and decided to use them as the basis for the movement in Shchelkunchik. The name, by the way, is the Russian term for a nutcracker.
“I certainly didn’t want to call my dance The Nutcracker,” she says, “and disappoint people who would think it was the traditional one.”
Just based on the poster for Shchelkunchik, no one should have any trouble on that score. The dancer, the giant and creepy birds and mouse, and the broken nutcracker doll should clear up any confusion.
“I found this nutcracker with gold glitter that I was going to use for the photo,” Wood says. “I wanted to break it to show that this was a deconstructed Nutcracker, but then I couldn’t destroy it. So someone found one at the dollar store, and that was a lot easier to break apart.”
And if you’re looking to break up with the well-worn holiday tradition, this dance performance could be just what you’re looking for this December.
What: Suchu Dance’s Shchelkunchik
When: December 1–3 at 8 p.m., December 4 at 7 p.m.
Where: Barnevelder Theater, 2201 Preston
Tickets: $17–$20 (can be purchased online at suchudance.org)
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.