Holiday dance picks beyond 'The Nutcracker'

December 3, 2010

By Lucia Mauro

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(Courtesy of corpodance.com)
Lucia Mauro offers some Nutcracker alternatives for the holiday season

Lots of children go to their first ballet during the holiday season and generally that means they see "The Nutcracker." But if you want to mix it up a bit, this year you’ve got some options!

Two local dance companies are performing unconventional takes on the holiday dance tradition. According to dance critic Lucia Mauro, these new works are sure to spark the imagination of young and old alike.

The first is Hubbard Street 2’s "Harold and the Purple Crayon" running Dec. 3 and 4 at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago.

Then she reviewed the Corpo Dance Company performance of "Coppelius" which runs Dec. 17 and 18 at Links Hall.

Classical ballet, with its dancing snowflakes and sugarplum fairies, dominates the yuletide landscape. Rarely did contemporary dance dip its often unpointed toes into the mix, until now. Hubbard Street 2, the apprentice company of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, uses modern moves to enliven a classic children’s book. The troupe’s director, Taryn Kaschock Russell, transformed "Harold and the Purple Crayon" into a 50-minute dance set to music by local indie rock composer Andrew Bird. After reading Crockett Johnson’s book to her two-year-old son, Russell devised a way to bring life to the story of a boy who draws his adventures with a purple crayon.

The gender-neutral character of Harold is performed by six dancers. The dance begins with Harold restlessly awakened in his bed. He springs up, then rolls around before being yanked and pulled across a blank canvas. He makes his escape through a window and proceeds to draw birds in an apple tree. This prompts two dancers to perform a duet as the gentle winged creatures as they softly bob their heads and embrace.

Shortly after, Harold gets lost in the big city against honking horns and a rush of people jogging or talking into their cell phones. He communicates through a series of gestures that children in the audience are asked to repeat by frantically waving their arms and pointing in different directions. Ultimately, children are empowered to use their bodies to tell a story.

Corpo Dance Company also explores the creative process. Artistic director Christopher McCray premieres "Coppelius." It’s a modern ballet and break-dancing reinterpretation of the famed Romantic era ballet, "Coppelia." McCray veers the story away from the mechanical doll and toward the temperamental toymaker, Dr. Coppelius, who created her. McCray has also recast the fantastical toyshop setting, giving it a slightly more jagged edge.

McCray is a great fan of steam punk, a subgenre of science fiction literature set during the Industrial Revolution. His inspiration is George Mann’s book, "The Affinity Bridge," which recalls Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" and "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells. So, it’s not surprising McCray turns the intimate Links Hall space into the workshop of a mad genius during the age of steam-automated machines. Dr. Coppelius, an anxious inventor lost in thought, enters and waters his polished brass plants with an oil can against various cogs and wheels. The costume palette of black brocade and gray leather sets a smoky, vintage tone.

Over the course of the dance, we observe the inventor as he builds a series of mechanized dolls, both male and female. Both eventually smooth out their trance-like, herky-jerky moves into more natural gracefulness. But when Dr. Coppelius creates a doll that wins the affections of his girlfriend, he destroys his own work of art: a potent symbol of the artist’s fragile ego.

So, during this holiday season, Both Hubbard Street 2 and Corpo Dance Company provide smart alternatives to the saccharine mix.