Friday, December 10, 2010

Toy Theatre Influence: Nutcracker

The Harlequin, from the NYBT's Nutcracker
Productions of the Nutcracker abound during the Christmas season. One particular annual production in New York caught my eye because of the heavy influence of toy theatre in its conception and design over 25 years ago that stays with it to this day.

I contacted the man behind the design, Keith Michael, and he was kind enough to share this article he wrote about it...
Choreographer and Scenic Designer Keith Michael created the Toy Theater-inspired production of The Nutcracker for New York Theatre Ballet in 1985. Led by serendipitous practical and aesthetic considerations, Toy Theater was the perfect metaphor for this re-imagining of the classic holiday ballet fantasy tale. New York Theatre Ballet, founded by Artistic Director Diana Byer, is an acclaimed chamber ballet company which maintains its prominence through meticulously detailed dance creations on a personal scale. The Nutcracker ballet is traditionally a grandiose endeavor often deliciously festooned with spectacular scenic effects and sometimes literally hundreds of performers onstage. NYTB and Keith Michael’s vision for a more intimate tale focuses attention on the story of the heroine Clara’s wonderful adventure within an equally delectable visual environment.

The Company’s frequent performances in smaller theaters, without the luxury of fly-space for multiple drops or generous offstage space for rolling scenery, made the logic of Toy Theater with the potential for grand opera house-scale production values “on a tabletop” was ideal!

Mr. Michael’s background as a teenage puppeteer, touring all through high school with his own 35-marionette version of The Nutcracker, made the leap to envisioning a candy box ballet version completely a natural.

The primary Toy Theater scenic element of the NYTB design is a back-of-the-stage Victorian-detailed proscenium arch within which backdrops are hung and revealed with the high “technology” equivalent of pulling a living room drape! Four stages of Clara’s journey - A “Nutcracker” act curtain, The Stahlbaum Drawing Room, The Snow Forest, and The Land of Sweets - are each evoked with a separate painted drop. Additional rolling scenic elements are a Doll House, a Window Unit, a Sleigh, decorative Land of Sweets Heraldry Banners and, of course, (what could be better?) an Ice Cream Throne.

In particular, Uncle Drosselmeyer’s Doll House, which is also the magical revelatory cabinet/stage for the Nutcracker doll, further enhances the playfulness of scale, by containing a miniaturization of the Drawing Room Scene complete with a miniature proscenium arch frame (more in the scale of a true Toy Theater) mimicking the “large” proscenium arch onstage immediately behind it.

Further Toy Theater references include Clara’s “real world” with her parents illustrated, a la the MGM The Wizard of Oz, in penny-plain black-and-white, and as Clara is transported to her own “Oz”, the stage is transformed to vibrant tupence-coloured. The rolling scenic units are relatively small and self-contained, and travel onstage primarily only right and left like Toy Theater props or characters manipulated through slots in the floor. And, indeed, all smaller hand props are likewise created with a “flat” design, even the Nutcracker doll, to emphasize the paper cut-out aesthetic of Toy Theater. The dancing, however, is fully three-dimensional, often bursting from the stage space.

The elaborate yet cozy stage pictures would not be complete without the masterful costume designs of Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, who uses color and line as a story-telling sixth sense, and the recent re-imaginings of the backdrop paintings by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith add lusciousness to all of the visual sweetmeats.

Finally, it is the exuberance, insight and humor of the dancing in The Nutcracker which brings Victorian-inspired tableaus and grandeur to this magnified miniature Toy Theater world – still a delight to audiences after 26 years!
Clara & Prince, from the NYBT's Nutcracker

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