A Nutcracker, Short and Sweet: The Whole Story in 50 Minutes

Sugarplum season is upon us, and every tot — with a teensy bit of culture — is headed straight for the theater, where there are Nutcrackers galore: from the Dolly Dinkle tap and ballet academy around the corner to the divas at the Opera House. Faced with such excess of options, what can a well meaning, but ballet illiterate, funny uncle or fancy aunt do?

[jump] One option that is both kid friendly and the solution of choice for divorced dads and bored balletomanes alike is the abbreviated Nutcracker Sweets by choreographer Mark Foehringer, now in its sixth season. A slim 50 minutes in length, in its first year on the Cowell Theater stage at Fort Mason, it features an efficient cast of eight adults and six children and provides all essentials and none of the flab from the E. T. A. Hoffmann story. The traditional score by Tchaikovsky has also been pared down to a jazzy rendition played live by a nine-piece orchestra. As music director Michael Morgan remarked when Foehringer requested the truncated arrangement, “Nutcracker can never be short enough.”

Explaining his rationale for cutting the ’Cracker down to size, Foehringer notes, “I had done Nutcracker for hundreds of years, and I was always in that damn party scene. So we buried it.” Yet, he acknowledges that the ballet plays an important role in theatrical and holiday tradition. “It’s usually the first ballet kids see — and the first time they hear music played live — so I wanted to make one that they could enjoy.”

With that aim in mind, he assembled a focus group of children, ages four to six, at the Zeum (now the Children’s Creativity Museum), which hosted Nutcracker Sweets in its early years. After introducing them to the story, the characters, and the music, he let the kids decide everything from the colors of the costumes to whether there should be a Mouse Queen in addition to the Mouse King.

“The Mouse King leaping onto the Nutcracker during the battle scene was created by a kid — he jumped on me to show how it should be done,” Foehringer explains. “The costumes designed by Richard Battle for the Spanish dance are yellow. That was what the kids chose, and I’ve never had anyone in the audience question why it is that way.”

The set by Peter Crompton is designed to resemble a pop-up book, and nearly all the dancers play multiple parts, from sugar-gobbling mouse to Sugar Plum Fairy in a blink of an eye.

He adds, “Kids love costumes, kids love props — they love an exaggerated cartoony quality, because that’s their world. We wanted to make it seem like a game, like playing dress-up with all the hats and costumes from the trunk of life.”

All sass aside, Nutcracker Sweets keeps the story rolling with engaging characters, sharp dancing, and good-natured humor. Marina Fukushima is a Clara whose joy and vivacity radiates in her every movement, and Brian Fisher, who flourishes his cape in the role of an extremely fabulous Drosselmeyer, says, “Everything that happens onstage happens by dancer power.”

Mark Foehringer Dance Project|SF presents “Mark Foehringer’s Nutcracker Sweets” Dec. 13-21 at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Cente (Marina Blvd. at Buchanan St.), S.F. Tickets are $18.50-$28.50.

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