Dance Wisconsin’s “Nutcracker Fantasy”: Tchaikovsky with Stocking Stuffers

Sunday afternoon’s performance of “Nutcracker Fantasy” at the Mitby Theater could have been personally filed in one of two places: Now in its twelfth season, and a firmly established Madison holiday tradition, it can be found under “Things I finally got around to seeing.” Or: Dance Wisconsin teaches an old dog (i.e., middle-aged critic), a new holiday trick, with its gentle twists on a familiar masterwork.

In a nutcracker shell, the gist of Dance Wisconsin founder JoJean Retrum’s conception is to add appropriate material while tweaking the story, in order to give the greatest number of young aspiring dancers a chance to hone their craft. Some other music is borrowed and added by arranger Taras Nahirniak (whose wife, Lori, directed this year’s cast), some professional soloists are brought in for the big numbers, and a well-proportioned ensemble of college and high school music directors are led by Blake Walter. Throw in the Monona Grove High School Singers, a few dozen kids of all ages, lovely and whimsical costumes, fabulous sets and lighting…and bring your own roasted chestnuts.

Act I takes place in Drosselmeyer’s toy shop, with about a dozen parents and multiple dozens of youngsters taking turns admiring the endless procession of magical toys. This context gives Taras Nahirniak opportunities to borrow Schubert, Prokofiev and Kodály, to name but three, as well as some tuneful original music, all of it clothed in unique orchestrations. The story moves to more traditional ground (and mostly original Nutcracker music), as Marie goes on a search for a partner for the lonesome Nutcracker, which leads through the village and to the Ice Forest. Here, in Act II, we were treated to Kate Komro as the Ice Princess, Ashley Bouder and Matthew Dibble as the Sugar Plum Doll and her Cavalier, and Ashley Daum and Jon Person as the Snow Queen and King. Bouder and Dibble were the major guests, with names such as Twyla Tharp Dance and New York City Ballet sprinkled on their resumes.

One of the finest touches came with the inclusion of the Monona Grove High School Singers. From a “Carol of the Bells” and “Still, Still, Still” to the ladies conquering the soaring lines of the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” this was one addition that worked at every level, visually and musically.

One could hardly ask for more than to enjoy the big dance numbers wonderfully realized in Retrum and Robin Fonfara’s choreography, the enthusiasm of the young Dance Wisconsin artists in training, familiar tunes freshened in skillful fashion, and a brisk two hours full of visual whimsy and delight. And before I forget—the printed program was excellent for its scope and detail, even including a page with photos describing the instruments played in the ensemble.

“Nutcracker Fantasy” is a little like tweaking the recipe on your favorite holiday dessert. And if there were moments one missed a familiar passage from the original ballet, well, that’s what DVDs are for. Last minute gift idea: tickets to Dance Wisconsin’s March presentation of “Coppelia.”

Photo: Snowflakes dancing in the Ice Forest. Courtesy: Beth Skogen Photography.