More than one way to crack a nut

'A Kansas Nutcracker' puts prairie spin on traditional holiday ballet

It was an idea born of necessity.

After all, the traditional "Nutcracker" ballet is already performed in Kansas City and Topeka each year. So to lure people to a local production of the show, Deborah Bettinger gave the time-honored story a new spin -- a personalized touch for the Lawrence area -- and brought Clara and her family a little closer to home.

"I knew that our version of the 'Nutcracker' needed a twist so that people would want to see ours, too," said Bettinger, the Lawrence Arts Center's ballet program coordinator and the show's choreographer. "It just kind of came to me that Clara should be from Lawrence in the 1850s, a really political time for Lawrence. The storyline parallels the original with a little girl at a holiday party where the events effect her dreams."

"A Kansas Nutcracker," set in the turbulent Kansas territory with Tchaikovsky's music re-composed for a small mandolin orchestra, opens Friday and runs for two weekends at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

Unlike the traditional ballet, the first act of this show is structured as a play. The Stahlbaums, a free state family, are celebrating Christmas Eve with a barn party that is interrupted by Delaware Indians, a family of Missouri ruffians and fervent abolitionist John Brown. While they await the arrival of Godfather Drosselmeier, they pass the time with barn dances true to the time, and talk of politics and weather.

"We were able to weave that time period into the ballet," Bettinger said. "We have cavalry, grasshoppers, wildflowers, snowflakes and all of it. We have John Brown and Lawrence women who are politically active and all the conflict that comes from that atmosphere. The second half really rests on what develops in that first half."

New additions

As the party winds down and Clara falls asleep in the second act, she dreams of dancing grasshoppers, snakes and barn animals instead of Tchaikovsky's traditional sugarplums. The adults' conversations of temperance, abolition and suffrage provide the framework for her dream sequence.

photo

"A Kansas Nutcracker" actress Alex Schriner as Janette, far right, dances with Sara Cortese as Clara, while, from left, Ron Willis as Drosselmeier, Eaton Saylor as Fritz and David Springe as Dr. Stahlbaum cheer on during a recent rehearsal.

The party guests also make cameo appearances in Clara's dream. John Brown's mother-in-law, Granny Rinks, takes the place of the Mouse King as Dame Mousyrinks, and the Missouri ruffians come to burn down the barn. Clara joins the toys and the Nutcracker Prince to chase them off in the climax of the ballet.

"Each year we adjust to the talent we have," said Ric Averill, the show's writer and director. "Grandma Rinks, who in the dream sequence becomes Dame Mousyrinks, is our Mouse Queen.

"The origin of the mice in the barn for the battle this year comes from the addition of John Brown's sons, who were mentioned in prior years, but brought onstage (this year) because of the talented teenage boys we had audition."

The changes come from the original E.T.A. Hoffman story upon which the ballet is based.

Distinct vision, version

Ron Willis returns to the show as Drosselmeier. Jake Walker will perform the role of John Brown, and Whitney Boomer will be Granny Rinks/Dame Mousyrinks.

Past Event

A Kansas Nutcracker

  • Friday, December 10, 2004, 7 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages

More

A 12-piece orchestra will accompany the dancers under the direction of Jeff Dearinger, director of the Uptown Mandolin Quartet. Dearinger rearranged Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" to add a prairie flavor.

He also shrank the size of the ensemble to save space on stage for about 140 dancers and actors. Members of the Prairie Wind Dancers and the Seem-To-Be Players will be mixing in with students and other Lawrence locals for the show.

"It becomes our own distinct version and vision of the 'Nutcracker,'" Averill said. "Plus, when that many kids are involved, it becomes a community event. We're just proud that it brings so many people, including families, together both on stage and in the audience. Deb Bettinger and I have always loved Kansas history, so this seemed like a fun match."

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