Traditional Christmas ballet gets jazzy

This past weekend, audiences were swinging through the land of sweets and walking in two-steps as the Watters Theater in the Anderson Center was transformed into a winter wonderland for “Jazz Nutcracker.”

“Jazz Nutcracker” is an original dance production performed annually from the Binghamton University theatre department. It features both students and local youth dancers and a variety of dances, including jazz, swing, tap, ballet, modern, ballroom and acrobatics.

The production was directed and choreographed by JoEllen Kuhlman, an adjunct lecturer of theatre at BU. She created “Jazz Nutcracker” when she was in college and decided to remake it here.

“We wanted to make a show that got students excited for the holidays, but in a brand new way,” Kuhlman said. “Jazz is much more upbeat, but it still puts the audience in that holiday mood.”

The story follows Clara, a young girl who gets a nutcracker from her grandfather, Drosselmeyer, for Christmas. When all the kids go to sleep, the Nutcracker comes to life and turns into a charming prince, taking Clara through an enchanted land of sweets on Christmas Day.

The production is an adaptation of “The Nutcracker” ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which was itself adapted from the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816.

Rachel Russo, stage manager for “Jazz Nutcracker” and a junior double-majoring in electrical engineering and theatre, explained how a few things were changed to the story.

“We made minor changes, such as adding an assistant to Drosselmeyer and, of course, changing the choreography up for every scene,” Russo said. “But the land of sweets is still the land of sweets and Clara is still Clara. It’s just a fun twist on a classic story.”

The production included a real magician, David Black, who plays Drosselmeyer. Kuhlman included Black in the show after working with him before and hoping an actual magician’s performance would add to the festive mood of the show.

“The magic has added another layer to the show,” Black said. “I don’t get to work with ensembles a lot, let alone dance productions, but this show was worth it. I hope the audience feels delight and joy through all the bright visuals, dance moves and different styles of music that add to it.”

The setting featured a festive and warm household that quickly transformed into a mythical winter wonderland with a battle against evil mice that soon led them to the bright and colorful land of sweets.

“We want the audience to feel like they’ve been swept off their feet to a new part of this magical, mythical world at every scene,” said Abigail Calandra, who plays Clara and is a junior double-majoring in English and theatre. “The ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ at the end of Act 1 is one of the most serene and beautiful scenes of the whole show, but before that, there’s a battle scene where there’s a lot of tension. But then Act 2 opens up into the cheerful land of sweets, which puts everyone in a good mood.”

The cast also featured a wide variety of dancers, including children from the Binghamton area. Evan Lapp, who plays the Nutcracker, is a senior at Johnson City High School who got the lead role after auditioning. He and his little sister were both featured in the production.

“The show quickly lifted me up and put me into the holiday spirit,” Lapp said. “It was hard to keep up with the college students at times, but the production has been so much fun and I hope the audience appreciates our hard work.”

The students and faculty involved in the show hoped everyone got into the holiday spirit after watching the show, especially with finals coming up.

“This time of year can be incredibly stressful, with all these tests and all the money put into the holidays,” Calandra said. “I want everyone to escape a little and appreciate the holidays as a time to enjoy [themselves].”

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