It is a sweet treat of a ballet that enchants festive theatregoers and has introduced successive generations to dance. But The Nutcracker’s cultural stereotypes, including in its Chinese and Arabian dances, have long caused offence and some audiences have also been alienated by its representation of class and family life.
Step forward Drew McOnie, the Olivier award-winning director and choreographer, who is creating a new production that is “representative of all the people who perhaps felt like The Nutcracker wasn’t necessarily for them”.
McOnie’s version will open this autumn in a new venue, the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, at London’s Southbank Centre. The ballet’s young heroine, Clara (often presented as upper-class), has become a boy, Clive; the beloved Nutcracker doll is now an Action Man figure. Clive’s relationship with his single father – “who is trying to make ends meet to provide for his only child” – is at the heart of the story. They go on an adventure to “crack open what it is to be a tough nut in this society”.
“For me as a gay man,” McOnie continued, “I can look at The Nutcracker and think that its family unit has not been representative of me. There are a lot of people it doesn’t represent. That’s not just its complicated racial identity but the cultural and class system and other nuanced things.” The Nutcracker, he said, was associated with “a very specific demographic – the particular type of people who go to see The Nutcracker but also the type of people it represents on stage”. His aim, for both his Nutcracker and the other productions created for The McOnie Company, is to create stories that make audiences feel like they belong and have “a reason to come together”.
Tchaikovsky’s music will be reimagined by composer, arranger and alto-saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi who, said McOnie, “would deconstruct the music and put it back together with a loving heart”. The Tuff Nutt, designed by Soutra Gilmour, will bring audiences up close and personal with the dancers – “whirling, leaping and baring their souls millimetres away from you” said McOnie – rather than framed by a proscenium arch.
At a time when theatres are competing against the lure of a night slumped in front of Netflix, McOnie explained that for audiences in the jazz club “you are the director of your own experience” and can explore the venue. “Netflix is edited so that within a millimetre they’re telling you what to look at. The great thing about theatre and dance is that you have a deeper sense of what you choose to look at.”
The Nutcracker is a rite of passage for any choreographer, suggested McOnie: “They all want to get their hands on that music and find their own way through it.” The first version he saw as a spectator was probably the Royal Ballet’s sumptuous staging, which he likened to “seeing a piece of history”, stressing that his new version was not designed to dismiss the Royal Opera House’s traditional Nutcracker but simply offer another take on the story.
As a dancer, McOnie performed in Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! in which Clara escapes a grim orphanage (he played Fritz, son of the institution’s owners). Performing over the Christmas period is special because, for many audiences, “it’s their one theatre trip that year” and the “goodwill-to-all sort of energy is present”.
The Nutcracker begins previews on 28 October. Next year, McOnie will unveil an eagerly anticipated adaptation of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning 2011 film about Hollywood’s silent era. His creative team are “firing on all cylinders” he said but remained tight-lipped on how the dog (played on screen by adorable terrier Uggie) would be represented on stage.
McOnie said Hazanavicius told him: “Drew, you will work your absolute butt off – put everything you’ve got into it – and at the end of the day all anyone is going to care about is the dog!”