Does the world really need another Nutcracker? That’s the question James Sewell, artistic director of James Sewell Ballet, asked himself when planning this year’s season.
“As a ballet company, it’s nice to have a Nutcracker, to have something to offer at the holidays, but it’s not something that I personally wanted to make,” he says.
The answer to this conundrum came thanks to Myron Johnson, artistic director of Ballet of the Dolls and one of Sewell’s first ballet and jazz teachers. Johnson, who put the Dolls on hiatus last year due to financial and personal issues, had staged his own irresistibly campy version of the classic ballet for almost 20 years.
“It’s a brilliant show,” Sewell says. “I have so much respect for what Myron does.” Teaming up was a no-brainer.
Johnson took over choreography duties for the Nutcracker (Not So) Suite. This time the piece is set in 1960s New York, and stars a life-size Barbie doll. The story follows the misadventures of 14-year-old Marie (danced by Deanna Gooding) who runs away from Momma (Kevin McCormick) on Christmas Eve. Rather than the traditional Tchaikovsky soundtrack, the production incorporates carols with hip-hop and R&B tunes.
Sewell, who has launched over 80 ballets, says the he acted as a guiding hand in the process of creating the show. He oversaw the big picture, providing his viewpoint when asked, but otherwise he let Johnson do his thing.
While the two collaborators are both working in the modern ballet vein, Johnson’s aesthetic tends to be more flamboyant than Sewell’s (two performances of this run are even earmarked as “Naughty Nutcracker” nights). But censorship wasn’t an issue.
“None of it feels outside of what intrinsically is comfortable for me,” Sewell says. “It’s delightful to see.”
The cast, pulled from JSB company, has enjoyed the collaboration as much as Johnson has. “For him, it’s been a new toy box. He’s been really open and inspired,” Sewell says. “The dancers are having such a good time with him. He’s fun. He works so fast, choreographically, that they have to really be on their toes — literally and figuratively — to keep up. It makes them stay present. They like to be challenged like that. Dancers live to pushed in that way.”
Sewell himself has enjoyed dancing with his company, something he hasn’t done in a while. Overall, the production “suits the company well,” Sewell says. “It ended up being a very serendipitous partnership all the way around.”
IF YOU GO:
Nutcracker (Not So) Suite
December 4 through December 20
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
The Cowles Center
All ages (parental discretion advised for December 11 and 19)