Dave Hurlbert, co-founder of the Opéra de Marigny and its ballet company, has seen more than his fair share of “Nutcracker” holiday performances. He says he has a love/hate relationship with Tchaikovsky’s score.
“I played piano for the San Francisco Ballet,” says Hurlbert. “I played ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ 47 times per season.”
Ballet has a special place in American dance, with regular professional presentations, dance school productions and even a Barbie Nutcracker movie.
“Most towns have their own local nutcracker,” says Hurlbert. “It doesn’t matter where it’s at, because it’s always that Victorian mansion with that little girl having the party.”
From now on, Marigny Opéra Ballet is doing the show, but with a more substantial adaptation. “New Orleans Jazz Nutcracker” has a new score and an altered story.
“Instead of being a teenager, Clara is a young woman walking around Jackson Square on Christmas Eve,” says Hurlbert. “She decided to go out and try to have fun. She comes to Jackson Square and sits on a bench. The activity, which is usually an upper class party, is the people of Jackson Square: a drag queen, a fortune teller, tourists, a few celebrities, a very strange family.
Since it’s in Jackson Square, there are some big French Quarter rats too.
The Ballet de l’Opéra de Marigny version uses a score composed for the company by Lawrence Sieberth.
“It’s magnificent,” said Hurlbert. “It’s a jazz version of The Nutcracker (by Tchaikovsky). Larry’s score is difficult. It’s very sophisticated.
The production will use a 10-piece ensemble comprised of jazz and classical musicians.
Sieberth incorporated beats you would hear in New Orleans, including swing and Latin beats, says Jarina Carvalho, who choreographed the show.
Carvalho grew up in Brazil and is a veteran of Dance Theater in Harlem. She has participated in a few “Nutcracker” productions presented by the New Orleans Ballet Theater since moving to New Orleans in 2004. She and Hurlbert spent time in Jackson Square capturing the stage and its movement.
JR photographs people in disenfranchised, impoverished or forgotten communities and makes their faces visible to the world.
The movement of the show is ballet-based, and Carvalho accentuated it in tune with the rhythms of Sieberth and the diverse crowd of Jackson Square. The production lasts just over an hour, and removing some of the traditional elements allowed them to create a more upbeat show, says Carvalho.
There are many dance solos in the show, including by Clara, as well as the drag queen and fortune teller. But the show is the most important casting for a production of the Ballet de l’Opéra de Marigny. It uses 10 company dancers as well as 11 young dancers, mostly performed as rats.
The stage at the Opéra de Marigny is compact, so the production preserves as much space as possible for the dancers. Other than a Jackson Square bench, accessories are minimal. The show gets more sophisticated where it can, with costumes and lighting including projections to represent the square.
“New Orleans Jazz Nutcracker” was originally supposed to be released last year. Instead, it’s the return of business from Covid shutdowns. Marigny Opera Ballet has been closed for productions since canceling a run of its original “Follies of 1915” show in March 2020, but it has maintained a class schedule. Hurlbert expects to perform “Jazz Nutcracker” again, but not necessarily every year. The Opéra de Marigny has been open for weekly concerts, mainly with jazz works, since September.
“New Orleans Jazz Nutcracker” takes place from December 3 to 5 and from December 10 to 12 at the Opéra de Marigny. Tickets cost between $35 and $50 at marignyoperahouse.org.
Don’t forget to take your vaxx card and face mask.