Sausage lovers, angry mice and a shriveled-face princess

Sugar plum fairies are ousted. In their place? Giant cats, a sausage-worshipping King, a princess with a shriveled face and a Mouse King with a thirst for vengeance. That’s all in Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s upcoming performance, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

This season, Susan and Giles Collard, artistic director and co-director of the company, respectively, have surprises in store for their annual winter concert at Diana Wortham Theater. In keeping with the company’s out-of-the-box style, ACDT decided to focus on E.T.A Hoffmann’s original manuscript, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — which is drastically different from the holiday story that’s typically staged.

Written in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, Hoffmann’s 1816 book tells an epic and surprisingly twisted story involving a clock maker, a dark curse, a ferocious battle between a rat and toy-solider army and a journey across a lake of syrup to a sugar-coated world rich with wonder and imagination.

The story begins in a familiar setting — on Christmas Eve in a big house, where Marie and her brother Fritz, their family and guests mingle beside a decorated tree — but quickly travels to strange and extraordinary realms. After receiving a gift from her godfather, a clock and toy maker named Drosselmeyer, young Marie’s reality is completely changed. That night she wakes to the sound of scratching. The enormous Mouse King looms in the shadows. That’s when the wooden Nutcracker comes to life and a midnight battle ensues.

What comes next is “the story-within-the-story: the fairy tale,” says Susan.

“In the morning, Drosselmeyer tells [the children that the Nutcracker came] from the Land of the Hard Nut. … That’s what it’s called in the book,” Giles says with a grin. “In this story-within-the-story, there is a King and a Queen, and the King’s passion is, actually, sausage, and his wife is the best sausage-maker in the realm. [The Queen] is preparing sausage for the King’s sausage festival when the Mother Mouse approaches her and begs, ‘Please can I have just a little?’

“The Queen gives her a piece and suddenly all these mice children jump out (from under Mother Mouse’s skirt) and make off with all the sausage … The King has a fit and asks his clock maker, whose name is also Drosselmeyer, to create a trap for the mice.”

In an act of rage, the Mouse King places a curse on the King and Queen’s first-born child. “Naturally, they hire these huge cats to patrol and guard the crib while their child sleeps,” says Giles. “The costumes are outrageous; the cats are so much larger than the crib.”

Despite their efforts, there is no stopping the curse from taking hold, and one morning the King discovers that his daughter’s face is “all shriveled up like a little nut,” Giles says. “She grows to be the most beautiful shriveled-face princess that there ever was,” says dancer Lola York, who will be playing the part of the Mouse King.

The Nutcracker toy, it turns out, is actually a young man who breaks this curse and sets the princess free from the spell. The young savior, however, is transformed into a hideous Nutcracker when the curse backfires. It is now up to the courageous young Marie to break the spell.

The most compelling aspect of ACDT’s vision is their devotion to telling all of Hoffmann’s original story. “The Russians took that [original] story and simplified it to the point where there was no story-line at all,” says Susan. “Scenes were cut out over 120 years to fit the modern world.”

But the edits were made for a reason. Hoffmann’s tale weaves and winds its way through an array of scenes and settings; from a German household preparing for Christmas to the world of the Hard Nut, and into a fantasy land of carved candy toys. Telling the original story makes for a particularly complicated production to choreograph and stage, a challenge which ACDT and its cast of 80 dancers is taking on.

In preparation for the show, the BeBe Theatre (aka ACDT headquarters) is filled with props, costumes and hand-painted backdrops. “It’s a difficult project because we’re choreographing the story-within-the-story — The Hard Nut — which we have isolated from the rest of the ballet,” says Susan. “The lights are different, the music is different, so it’s clear to the audience that we’ve traveled to another world. It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting.”

In keeping with this out-of-the-ordinary interpretation, ACDT pairs classical ballet, jazz, modern, tap and hip-hop dance with contemporary music and wildly colorful costumes. The music is “funky, fun and bizarre,” says Giles, describing a mix that ranges from Eastern-European folk music, French instrumental, jazz, ambient soundscapes coupled with selections of Tchaikovsky’s original composition for the ballet. “The costumes echo the musical choices as well,” says York, “they’re edgy and contemporary.”

Adventurous audiences should expect to see a colorful and creative interpretation of this classic winter tale.

— Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at asezakblatt@mountainx.com.

what: Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
where: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square
when: Friday, Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4 (7:30 p.m. $25/$20 students and seniors. Info: acdt.org or 257-4530)

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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