First, they dice the cherished Christmas evergreen down to around 15 minutes -- the approximate length of all six of the multimedia morsels premiering on their smorgasbord. Then they take the innocent Clara and turn her into a booze-guzzling tenement dweller who spends her holiday clad in a dingy terry cloth robe huddled in front of a junky rabbit-eared TV.
Rodents are a more malignant threat in this urban environment than at the familiar party visited by the mysterious Drosselmeyer. But the nuisance plays out more like slapstick than the plague. At the height of this seedy fantasia, "The Nutcracker in 15 Minutes" takes us to a morgue where Clara, stretched out on a gurney with a toe tag, rises from the dead and dances Tchaikovsky's "Grand Pas de Deux" with an orderly. Shabby costumes combine with the woebegone setting to make a perfect anti-holiday package.
Among the other five originals -- all imported from outside the Poets' creative braintrust -- holiday themes are not always pervasive. "Dance 101" by Dorne Pentes and Ivica Bilich traces the evolution of dance all the way back to the mind of God, with Michael Mattison at the podium delivering the pompous lecture. Between snatches of the Pentes-Bilich video/slideshow, the hapless Philip Sprinkle earns the right to be known as the Lord of the Pratfall about three skits before he acquires the high-stepping mantle of Lord of the Dance. Otherwise, the comedy piece -- with sadism inflicted upon Sprinkle by Joseph Curry and Sarah Emery -- only grazes the Yule season when it briefly winks at The Nutcracker.
The first two pieces on the bill, "Love in Winter" by Jim Nicholson and "Blink" by Rachel Crawford, are even more obliquely connected with the nativity. Nicholson's video has an autumnal tone and a couple of his sculptures have a winged motif suggestive of angels. But the choreography by Curry -- Miranda Haywood and Bridget Morris dancing mirror images of each other in sharply contrasting costumes by MyLoan Dinh -- is only angelic until Curry's own arrival.
He moves through the center of the audience and ascends the stairs to the downstage, tugging a house behind him. The strenuous effort recalls Humphrey Bogart with The African Queen in tow. Suddenly the two women are radically different, with Morris in the dark dress perhaps signifying home and responsibility and Haywood in the light cerulean perhaps signifying love and freedom. Intriguing stuff whatever you make of this agonized love triangle.
"Blink" seems more determined to elude meaning with its diffuse elements, showing us Kellie Jackson portraying waves (or so the program tells us) and Skyla Caldwell perching herself over the lip of the stage chomping a cantaloupe. At the heart of this piece is an unusual pas de deux with Crawford paired with sprightly little Savannah Faircloth, a dance imbued with mother-daughter interaction that entrusts an unusually large part of the initiative to the younger dancer. On the other hand, you might wonder if Caldwell actually is a dancer until her exploits as Clara at the end of the evening.
The two pieces that follow at the middle of the evening have clear Christmas connections -- but while both are richly entertaining, they lack settled ideas about what they wish to say. In "The 6th Sock" by Karola Luttringhaus of the Alban Elved Dance Company, the disparity between the synopsis that appears in the program and the action onstage is devastating. Moreover, when you've waited half an evening to don your 3D glasses, the payoff from Yue-Ling Wong's animation is downright disappointing.
Luttringhaus the performer never disappoints. As she extracts a glittery pair of new shoes from two of her six Christmas stockings, the transformation is truly magical when she slips them on her feet -- regardless of the lame animation onscreen behind her. With six stockings to ransack, there's more lithe Luttringhaus to enjoy.
"Merry Mary, a Story About Every Woman" has nearly as many impulses behind it as it has collaborators. But even if its Mary, as played by Barbi VanSchaick, is something far removed from merry, her dialogue with the Angel at a Ballantyne nativity rehearsal provides the dramatic highlight of Holiday 6/15. You occasionally get the idea that this is the Mary, particularly when she vanishes as the rehearsal resumes. But the committee of authors -- Melissa Matthews, Gina Stewart and Katherine Harrison -- never brings that idea to full blossom.
And is the Angel really Every Woman or just emblematic of the airheads inhabiting our glitziest suburbia? Played by Chandler McIntyre with a desperation fueled by high-test vanity, she's definitely a hoot.
While the colossal Madame Bubushka is starting to look a wee bit faded at the seams, North Carolina Dance Theatre's version of The Nutcracker comes across as freshly as ever to boys and girls viewing it for the first time at Belk Theater. The late Salvatore Aiello's concept and choreography still make a beautiful, compelling statement out of a story that tends to unravel when staged by other dance companies.After dancing the role forever, Mia Cunningham is still bringing fresh energy to the role of Clara -- even when the spotlight falls on other dancers. She adores her nutcracker, as if receiving it for the first time. She's awed by the powers of her caped godfather, the flamboyant Drosselmeyer, and nurses a discreet crush on her elder sister's fiance, Hans Friedrich, the clean-cut cadet.
Traci Gilchrest and Daniel Wiley are elegant perfection as the betrothed couple. Wiley manages the military valor and salutes without looking stupid, an accomplishment some of his predecessors can't claim, and Gilchrest's virginal polish as Anna can stand up to comparisons with Kati Hanlon.
Jason Jacobs still doesn't make you believe that Fritz is Clara's older brother, and he still hasn't mastered his enforcer role in the opening scene. But once the party begins at the Stahlbaums', Jacobs delivers Fritz's mousy peskiness superbly. If Servy Gallardo still falls short of delivering the mysterious grandeur of Drosselmeyer with the same heroic flair Benjamin Kubie brought to the role, he's made notable strides in that direction -- and he's doing an admirable job of mastering the spellbinder's comical eccentricities.
Of course, the little children in Bubushka's brood are adorable, and the cameo solos are as delightful as ever. Nichole Rochelle leaves her own special stamp on the Arabian snake handler, not as comical or exotic as some but definitely sexy.