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Matt Pedersen and Danielle Nigro star in the Theatre Department's production of "Jazz Nutcracker."
‘Jazz Nutcracker’ puts swinging spin on holiday classic
November 29, 2016Tweet
Matt Pedersen thinks ballet is beautiful. At the same time, however, he finds it can be cut and dry, overly technical. That’s why he’s excited for the Theatre Department’s interpretation of this holiday classic. “Jazz Nutcracker” offers a fresh spin on what is traditionally performed as a ballet.
“The songs are super-high-energy. These dances are meant to get you energized and excited. It’s not just meant to tell a story and it’s not just ballet,” said Pedersen, who plays the titular role.
Pedersen will join a cast of more than 20 when “Jazz Nutcracker” hits the Watters Theater stage at 8 p.m. Dec. 2-3, and at 2 p.m. Dec. 3-4. The cast will also give a special Arts in Education performance to regional schools at 10 a.m. Dec. 2. Tickets are $18, general; $16, alumni/faculty/senior/staff; $10, students.
“Jazz Nutcracker,” through a series of kinetic dance performances, tells the story of a young girl named Clara (played by Danielle Nigro), who receives a nutcracker as a gift from her godfather, Drosselmeyer (played by Director of Musical Theatre Tommy Iafrate). The nutcracker comes to life and whisks Clara away to a fantasy dreamland, where she is treated to gifts and dances from representatives from across the globe.
“We’re following the basic ballet storyline of ‘The Nutcracker,’ but our music is a little bit different. You’ll hear the melodies throughout some pieces, and then we have some other songs that are kind of intertwined,” said JoEllen Kuhlman, director and choreographer. “I took some of my favorite parts of the ballet and weaved them into this version, and added some of my own spice to it to try and make it as peppy and fun as possible.”
Kuhlman was going to build “Jazz Nutcracker” around Duke Ellington’s 1960 album “The Nutcracker Suite” but found that it didn’t offer enough music to support a full dance show. So she enlisted Pedersen to find some more music to beef up the score. She’d text him a list of five adjectives, along with a tempo, and Pedersen would go on a Spotify listening spree, searching for just the right tunes.
“A lot of it was just making sure that we picked music that was a) danceable and b) helped further the storyline,” Pedersen said. “As long as it fit into both of those things, we used it.”
The music that Kuhlman and Pedersen agreed on includes numbers by Ellington, Glenn Miller and Shorty Rogers, among others. Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is featured, along with more avant-garde instrumental pieces. According to Kuhlman, jazz music not only ups the energy level of the show from an aural perspective, but lends itself to much more dynamic dancing.
“In the ballet Nutcracker, you have to be a ballerina. This version has all different styles of dance, so it kind of opens the door for more students, more possibility,” said Kuhlman.
The show includes a variety of jazz dance styles — classical, contemporary, swing, tap, lyrical modern contemporary and hints of Fosse.
“When your focus is no longer keeping to one style of dance and it’s to tell a story, the lines kind of get blurred, where your contemporary stops and your classical jazz starts,” Pedersen said.
The heightened energy of the show is never more apparent than in the battle scene, which pits the mice versus the drummers. The mice are on one side of the stage, the drummers opposite, both prepared for battle. When the two sides cross, mice fly into drummers, and staffs and drumsticks go careening into the air. It’s one of Kuhlman’s favorite moments.
“I like our battle. It’s kind of fun because there’s a lot going on. It’s probably one of the most tiring pieces for everyone. It’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of patterning, a lot of stuff and people flying across the stage,” she said.
That the cast makes it all work is a testament to its ability to collaborate, said Kuhlman.
“Oh my gosh, they’re amazing. It’s a pretty big cast. There are 15 college students, one faculty member and six children. I think they work well together,” said Kuhlman.
Pedersen echoed Kuhlman’s sentiment. He thinks Kuhlman cast him as Nutcracker and Nigro as Clara because he and Nigro are real-life best friends.
“I live with (Nigro) and she’s been my other half for the past four years. So when we have these scenes on stage, where I’m her prince and she’s my princess, there’s natural chemistry. And that’s important when you don’t have words to tell a story. Your body is connected to another person’s body. You need to have people that can really get along like that. To make real magic on stage, there needs to be chemistry.”
Kuhlman, who had done a jazz version of “The Nutcracker” in college, built the show to be entertaining for all ages, families and college students alike. She hopes to make it an annual tradition. Pedersen is proud to be a member of the founding cast.
“Everyone should come see it,” he said. “It’s something that no one will have seen anything like. It’s magical. It’s whimsical. It keeps you engaged. What else could you ask for in a night of theater?”