English National Ballet’s Nutcracker. Photo by Annabel Moeller via eno.org
We’ve all heard of and most of us have seen the infamous Nutcracker – the festive ballet that follows protagonist Clara’s journey around the world, culminating in her arrival at the Land of Sweets – and for many, this is as far as it goes when it comes to Christmas related dance. But what about contemporary dance? Does modern dance’s stereotypical serious façade exclude it from exploring Christmas as a theme and embracing the most wonderful time of the year?
There is one example that immediately springs to mind when considering Christmas and modern dance, which happens to relate to the old ballet favourite. Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! (1992) was created to mark the centenary of the famed ballet, and aims to be a contemporary re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s ‘glorious’ score – an ambition Bourne definitely fulfils. Whilst elements of the movement language are arguably still relatively classical and stylised, the re-configuration of the traditional storyline creates what the company describes themselves as “a fresh, hip and charmingly irreverent interpretation of the traditional Christmas favourite”. So, how is Christmas presented in this work? Is there still a towering, tinseled, twinkling tree centre stage? Is there an abundance of presents and candles and festive foods? Not one bit. Bourne turns our perception of Christmas entertainment on its head by inviting us to view it from a different perspective, specifically from the perspective of protagonist Clara and her fellow urchins.
Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! Photos by Bill Cooper via londondance.com
Despite offering us a darker, more sinister setting than the upper class family Christmas of the Nutcracker ballet, Bourne’s work is by no means lacking in festive fun and references, with the orphans bouncing across the stage in multicolored paper hats, and an entire scene dedicated to the theme of wintry ice-skating, the dancers clad in white furs and the stage covered in smoke and fake snow. Whilst the rest of the work moves on to focus on Clara’s journey into a fantasy land and the colorful array of characters she meets during her travels, the opening to the piece firmly establishes that Christmas can be a credible subject for high profile contemporary choreographers.
However, is exploration of the yuletide theme restricted to theatrical, humorous choreography such as Bourne’s? Or can it be utilised as a stimulus in more abstract, solemn work? Richard Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols (2012) does exactly this, by setting his trademark Cunningham-inspired style of choreography to Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (1942) score (sung live on stage by the Canterbury Cathedral choir) which expresses images of the Christmas story through the medium of reconfigured medieval English carols.
Richard Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols. Photo by Chris Nash via richardalstondance.com
Alston’s choreography reflects the musical accompaniment, not by trying to narrate but rather “to portray the poetic imagery of the mediaeval words” (Alston, 2012) for example, one scene is centred around an image of the Virgin Mary having an insight/premonition into the troubled future that lies in store for her child.
Although there is a very brief history of the association of Christmas and contemporary dance, both Nutcracker! and A Ceremony of Carols are evidence of the success the festive theme can achieve – Nutcracker! is celebrated as one of the most popular dance productions ever presented in the UK; Judith Mackrell heralded the work as having captured “the soaring ecstasies and dark mysteries of Britten’s musical vision”.
Will other modern dance choreographers embrace the December festivities as Bourne and Alston have? The future looks bright, for only this year Arthur Pita brought his The Little Match Girl to Sadler’s Wells, based on the Christmas themed story by Hans Christian Andersen. We can only wait in anticipation to see what future Christmases will bring to the world of dance.
BA (Hons) Contemporary Dance student