Nutcracker by Ukrainian Shumka Dancers was presented by Dance Victoria at The Royal Theatre in Victoria, Dec. 1-3. The production is on tour and played in Camrose at Jeanne & Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre, Dec. 8-9. It will also be presented in Edmonton at Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Dec. 15-16.
Ukrainian Shumka Dancers’ production of Nutcracker offers a twist on the traditional Christmastime ballet while keeping its themes of celebration, connection and community intact. As I take my seat at Victoria’s regal Royal Theatre, there is a festive spirit in the space with the sounds of the Victoria Symphony members warming up their instruments.
The production begins in the same way a traditional Nutcracker does, on the dark winter streets of an old city, but in Shumka’s interpretation the children on their way to the party are entertained by a vertep — a Ukrainian puppet theatre — instead of a parade of partygoers. This is our first taste of Ukrainian culture in the production; Shumka instills a little bit of Ukraine into every aspect of this familiar tale.
The magic of Ukrainian dance explodes in its dynamic and bold style with the commencement of the party scene. We are shocked into attention with massive jumps, fast turns, high kicks and brilliantly coloured costumes. Distinctive patterns are woven into flowing dresses and shining red boots, and there are no pointe shoes to be seen.
A life-sized Ukrainian marionette entertains party guests, its robotic dancing leading to high jinx whenever someone tries to play with it. The waltz of the snowflakes is reminiscent of a snowfall in a pine forest as dancers duet seamlessly with green laurels that seem to float on a gentle breeze. I find myself constantly excited to see how Shumka has diverted expectations of what Nutcracker will look, feel and sound like.
The storytelling in act one is wonderfully humorous, featuring silly and petulant children and the cutest of little mice from Victoria’s Veselka Ukrainian Dancers Association. The production is truly massive with 80-plus cast and crew.
At the beginning of act two, a dreamland version of Clara makes a grand entrance wearing the only pair of pointe shoes in the production and a gravity-defying pancake tutu. The boisterous and joyous celebration that follows feels like a collaboration between the dancers, choir, symphony and audience. At one point, a quartet featuring body percussion and fast footwork has the theatre thumping with elated excitement, the dancers hungrily feeding off this energy. This leads into an exhilarating Ukrainian Hopak and we can’t stop cheering and clapping for every wild jump and spin. The mounting cheer in the room is infectious and flows between the dancers and the audience fluidly.
The dancers portraying Clara and the Prince flawlessly blend technique with storytelling, executing a highly demanding fouetté combination and grand allegro with the same ease they use to convey the deep friendship of their characters. I am in awe at Clara’s powerhouse strength and superhuman grace as she masterfully interprets the classic dance of the sugar plum fairy.
To address the cultural appropriation in a traditional Nutcracker, Shumka worked with martial arts master Amanda Min and renowned choreographer Wen Wei Wang to craft a new trio that respectfully celebrates Chinese culture. Their piece is a well-balanced collaboration; mixed martial arts is made into a stunning dance, with precise kicks, jabs and aerial cartwheels.
Another new addition is a piece created through a community partnership with the Mattierin Irish Dancers. This fast-moving, high-kicking divergence from the original plot is a treat to see within a production already full of originality.
As Nutcracker comes to an end, Clara and the Prince dance a pas-de deux with a bittersweet ending as the Prince slowly turns back into a nutcracker. It’s sad to witness Clara desperately trying to sustain the duet between herself and the Nutcracker as he becomes stiff and immovable but she finally gives in and just as she does so, wakes from her dream underneath the Christmas tree.
Shumka’s Nutcracker is a delightful and lighthearted experience. It feels like a wonderful new tradition to herald in the holiday season.
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