Tonight, the 66-year-old John Munger -- a dancer, choreographer, scholar, critic, and elder of the Twin Cities dance community -- is presenting his popular Nutbuster!! The Ballet for the third year in a row at Bryant-Lake Bowl. It's a solo show that offers his unique take on E.T.A. Hoffman's traditional ballet.
Munger has been in various productions of The Nutcracker since 1970. He says that he has played the role of Drosselmeyer over 150 times, and has been onstage when the nutcracker cracks over 250 times. "I've done so many goddamn Nutcrackers that I wanted to do a different take on it that wasn't just a gimmick -- that actually made some kind of sense," he says.
He approached the idea about five years ago, two years before premiering it. "I gave it some thought. I talked with Kristin Van Loon at the Bryant-Lake Bowl about the possibility, and she was enormously enthusiastic. I went ahead and started working on the idea."
His initial concept was to do a one-man Nutcracker. "I've done so many roles," he says. "You wouldn't believe it. I've never done the Cavalier and I've done the Sugar Plum Fairy and I've never done Clara, but I've done quite a few of the others."
When he talked with Van Loon five years ago, Munger told her that he wouldn't do it unless he had a good idea. He soon found that his original idea to do a one-man Nutcracker, with all the costume changes and other adjustments, "was not a good idea," he says. It took him about six months to figure that out. "Sex and politics and art have a way of hanging on to you," he says.
Eventually Munger landed upon his good idea. In Nutbuster!! The Ballet there's no Clara, no war with the rats, no snow ballet, and no land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. What Munger is left with is a story of a poor, elderly man who is probably an alcoholic, with no friends, no family, and no future. "He's a totally dead-end person who lives in one of these horrible flop-house things called a 'hotel' where you rent by the week, located above a bar or a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis," Munger says. "He is a catastrophe, he's a wreck, a dead end. His name just happens to be Drosselmeyer."
In Drosselmeyer's solitude, he imagines that he has a goddaughter named Clara, that he can give her gifts, and that he can take her away by magic to a wonderful place where people can dance for her. The whole performance is a solo, because it's all in Drosselmeyer's imagination. "Instead of being one guy trying to be 36 characters with a lot of costume changes and cute crap like that, the point is that it's only him... and he's a wreck," Munger says.
Before the show starts, Munger speaks to the audience, giving a brief introduction about why he does the show. But after that is the music of the overture, and there are no more words. "It is purely his fantasy in his apartment," he says.
Along the way, Munger adds humor and a satirical sensibility. For example, during the Chinese Dance he portrays the character walking to the bathroom by snatching open the curtains of the upstage center, where there's a sign on the door that says 'men.' He knocks on it, but the bathroom is occupied and he can't get in. "There's this cross pigeon-toed thing he does in his effort to keep from wetting his pants," Munger says.
In the show, there are two dolls. One of the dolls is Clara, an "achingly saccharine cute doll" that Munger bought at Toys-R-Us. The second doll -- an inflatable sex doll he got at Lickety Split and has dressed with underwear -- plays the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. He and the sex doll do the famous Pas de Deux. "She's incredibly flexible," Munger says, "and does things that no human ballerina could possibly do."
The music for the show is a combination of a formal orchestral version of The Nutcracker done by the London Symphony Orchestra and also a satirical version by Spike Jones and the Band that Plays for Fun.
Munger says that part of the reason for doing Nutbuster!! is that he's been trying for three or four years to make dances that can only be done by an older male dancer. He's trying to resist the status quo of older male dancers being relegated to roles where they just go out onstage in a monk's robe with a rope belt "and does almost nothing except adore the light," Munger says. "My mission with a piece like Nutbuster!! is to say, 'Hey, we can do a hell of a lot more than that. And let me cram this example in your face.'"
Because Munger is also performing in a concurrent "traditional" Nutcracker, there's only one performance of Nutbuster!! this year. So call ahead to make sure that you get a seat, because it most likely will sell out.
IF YOU GO:
Nutbuster!! The Ballet Tonight at 7 p.m. (Doors at 6 p.m.) Bryant-Lake Bowl Call 612-825-8949 or visit Brown Paper Tickets
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.