It’s a hazardous assignment, taking on the deconstruction, parody and transfiguration of a beloved cultural icon – especially one so deeply intertwined with so many people’s happy memories of the year-end holidays. But in this case it really needed to be done. Celebrated choreographer and 1981 Bard College alumnus David Parker returns to his alma mater this weekend with his dance company the Bang Group to present two performances of his Nut/Cracked, which will entirely refresh your perspective on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday (dare I say it?) chestnut.
Perhaps best-known for his 2002 work Slapstuck – a duet for dancers dressed entirely in Velcro – Parker trained as deeply in tap as in ballet, and injects his lifelong enthusiasm for musical theater and vaudeville techniques into the modern-dance medium with grace and humor. His work is renowned for its originality of interpretation, its obliteration of the gender roles so traditional in ballet and its rigorous grounding in rhythm.
In fact, many of Parker’s pieces have no musical score at all, other than the percussive sounds made by body parts smacking together or drumming on the floor. He has written in his lively blog that even when a work will eventually be performed to music, his company first drills in silence until all the dancers have the body-rhythm soundtrack perfected. His dancers are called upon to tap-dance en pointe or barefoot, to grip harmonicas in their teeth so that their rhythmic labored breathing provides the score, to create a soundscape by treading on bubble wrap. Picture a big musical production number from the Golden Age of Hollywood as choreographed by Merce Cunningham, have at least one or two of the dancers cross-dress, throw in a dash of baggy-pants burlesque humor and you’ll begin to get the idea. All dance forms are honored, but nothing is sacred.
A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Parker has had a long association with Dance Theater Workshop, though the Bang Group is currently based at the West End Theater in Manhattan. He has won a slew of awards and grants and teaches dance composition at the Juilliard School, Barnard College, the Alvin Ailey School and Hunter College.
“Bard shaped my aesthetics and ethics and opened my imagination to adventure,” says Parker. “In many ways, Nut/Cracked embodies that heady mix of brashness and rigor that so characterized my time there.” In this piece, which the company describes as “an ode to American eclecticism,” we are told that the choreographer “finds beauty in the ridiculous, waltzing us through many incarnations of Tchaikovsky’s score, including versions by Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller, as well as the traditional orchestral suite.”
Balancing unabashed theatricality with a bracing dose of irony, this is a Nutcracker that will thoroughly entertain even people who think that they don’t like dance. Don’t bring the tykes along, though: The piece, featuring generous helpings of irreverent gender-bending, may provoke awkward questions from puzzled youngsters and is considered suitable for audiences ages 12 and up only.
The Bang Group will perform David Parker’s Nut/Cracked in the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard College campus on Saturday, December 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $25 to $45 and can be ordered by calling the box office at (845) 758-7900 or online at https://fishercenter.bard.edu.
The Bang Group’s Nut/Cracked, Saturday, December 20, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, December 21, 2 p.m., $25-$45, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.