The Nutcracker and the Mouse King at Diana Wortham Theatre

Unbridled enthusiasm is unseemly in a reviewer, to be sure — but that’s easily got around when necessary by quoting someone else. So let me quote my father, who accompanied me to Friday night’s performance of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King at Diana Wortham Theatre: “Heck if that wasn’t the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

It’s just plain inspiring to see local artists succeed on a grand scale — especially when they bring together a whole community in order to do so. But before I write another word, know this: there is only one more performance of the show, and it is tonight, Saturday. Make haste, my friends. 

Once a year, ACDT and its sister studio, The New Studio of Dance, collaborate on a large-scale dance concert involving the professional company and dance students of all ages. Which means that, if for some reason you don’t like kids, you should probably stop reading now, and consider this particular entertainment no further. But what the show lacks in across-the-board professionalism, it makes up for where it counts: in sheer imagination, generosity of spirit and chutzpa. Even minus the perennial Cute Factor of seeing kids perform (many for the first time), The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a wonderfully imaginative, entertaining and, in places, quite moving spectacle of dance.

Under the direction of Giles and Susan Collard, ACDT has gained a reputation for surprising and sometimes edgy choreographic re-tellings of traditional stories. In this case, they’ve gone back to the original 1816 novella by E.T.A. Hoffmann (one of Germany’s more macabre and fantastical writers of the Romantic Period), on which the ever-popular Tchaikovsky ballet is based.

It turns out that the original Nutcracker is much weirder than anyone familiar with Tchaikovsky would suspect. For one thing, there’s a King and Queen of Sausages, as well as a Not-So-Pretty Princess and a Sticky Lake Creature. What’s interesting about the Collards’ version is that they “rescue” much of this truly psychedelic and creepy material from oblivion and present it with wit and dramatic sharpness.

The opening number is gorgeous. It features Giles Collard as “Drosselmeier,” fighting his way through a snowstorm with what turns out to be the actual Nutcracker tucked under his arm. The set (designed by Mr. Collard, along with the show’s phantasmagorical masks — a multi-talented man!), lights (designed by Jason Williams) and sound (designed by Nelson Reyes) all conspire to create a winter atmosphere that is as evocative and cinematic as any Disney fairytale. Soon the ACDT dancers appear as the swirling “snow,” of which long-time company member Jenni Cockrell is (somehow not surprisingly) the most capricious embodiment: she clings to Collard’s coattails and spins him around like a weathervane in an icy winter blast. The effect is at once beautiful and hilarious — as ACDT’s best work characteristically is.

Among the many stand-out performances, I can’t pass over the King and Queen of Sausages, played by real-life husband-and-wife team Jaime and Sky McDowell. It’s one thing for a king to love his homemade sausages; it’s another altogether for his regal spouse to lasso him with a pink rope of them. The McDowells are preposterously funny together, and their stage presence overwhelms all resistance.

The audience Friday night was also delighted by Karen George’s expressive performance as “Fritz,” the bratty brother to the story’s young protagonist “Marie,” played by Amy Borskey — herself a beautiful dancer of captivating and understated grace. Fritz’s make-believe sword-fight solo is about as accurate a depiction of boyhood histrionics as any I’ve seen in a dance.

The ACDT Junior Company boasts many impressive performances in the choral numbers as well. But the secret star of the show never appears on stage. Nelson Reyes, whom ACDT fans will know better as a choreographer and star performer whom ACDT brought to Asheville from Cuba, has designed a “musical collage” for the show that is endlessly evocative. Reyes juxtaposes excerpts from the original Tchaikovsky with Benjamin Britten, contemporary electronica, classical guitar and traditional polka, to form a soundscape that wonderfully supports the fantastical and unexpected shifts in the narrative the Collards have conceived. It seems as though Reyes, though he has allegedly “retired” from performing, is finding other outlets for his prodigious talent.

After all this effusiveness, it’s tempting simply to sign off; but the show — even on its own terms — has one significant flaw: many of the numbers would be stronger if their length were trimmed by about a third. Unfortunately, this is true of most choreography. But in this case, at least one has the plausible excuse of wanting to give everybody (and we’re talking about a cast of about 50 people, ages 6 and up, students and professionals alike) a chance to show what they can do. And what they can do is without a doubt impressive.   

The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, presented by Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and The New Studio of Dance. Inspired by the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Directed by Giles and Susan Collard. Choreography by Shannon Phillips, Brandi Hand, Joe Mohar, Jenni Cockrell, Karen George, Lola York, Amy Hamilton, Nelson Reyes, Giles Collard, and Susan Collard. Lighting Design by Jason Williams. Sound Design by Nelson Reyes. Set Design and Headpiece Design by Giles Collard. Featuring: ACDT company members, NSD students and guests. The final performance is Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 pm, Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Place, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $25/$20 students and seniors. 828-254-2621 or dwtheatre.com

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