Almost Otherworldly: Island Moving Company’s ‘Newport Nutcracker’ at Rosecliff Mansion

Words by Kathryn Boland | Images by Meri Keller

For many, viewing The Nutcracker is a magical, almost otherworldly experience. Yet the magic is often placed at a remove, on a proscenium stage with the audience obediently seated in a dark theater. Island Moving Company’s The Nutcracker at Rosecliff Mansion, however, brings audiences right up close to the action. The Newport, RI-based company “seeks to… connect audiences to their own emotions and provide a shared experience that transcends cultural boundaries.” As such, IMC often presents works in non-traditional spaces that closely engage audiences with the dancing, transcending the boundary of the fourth wall.

In this performance, at 4 PM on November 23rd, The Winter Fairy (Lauren Difede) and Drosselmeyer (Shane Farrell) opened the show, walking down a grand staircase near the Rosecliff Mansion’s front entrance. They offered elegance without hubris. Audience members were standing and seated in front of the staircase. After pleasantries, the Oehlrichs children, Tess (Myrsine) and Hermann (Alex Viveiros) and their friends led audience members into the next room. There both the children and parents danced, as traditionally occurs in The Nutcracker. Here, however, standing mere feet from the choreography, it was if we were almost ready to join in the ballroom dancing ourselves.

The children played amusing games, such as making a tunnel and traveling under it, and playing in circles. Their movements had inventive touches, such as a tendu, pause, and hop up with the leg still reaching forward at forty-five degrees. Through it all, there was an air of Victorian-era sophistication. Costumes and set dressings built the foundation for such refinement, bringing a sense of warmth and magic rather than inaccessibility or rigidity. Tess’s demeanor and movement quality were no different, her joyful ballon matching her wide smile. The cast again led the audience to another room. Again, I felt as if I could have been part of the party, preparing for another happening just as the main characters were.

Then it was time for Drosselmeyer to show his treasures. Kissey Doll (Tara Gragg) popped out of a box to dance for the children. Keeping the mechanical doll quality while moving through complex choreography, she made the character convincing and compelling. Soldier Doll (Glen Lewis) danced next, with jazzy signatures of turns in parallel and arms in straight, versus curved, shapes. All the while, we audience members mingled with the partygoers, enjoying the dancing as much as they did. Drosselmeyer distributed his gifts to the children, including the Nutcracker to Tess. She danced with it, entranced and pleased, until Hermann swooped in to steal it, wanting to have a look. While looking, he broke it in half by mistake. Drosselmeyer could fix it in a snap. This felt more realistic, and more positive, than him intentionally breaking it. The children exited one by one. Drosselmeyer wagged a finger at Hermann as he went, getting laughs. These social nuances felt more natural and inclusive of all in close proximity. Foreshadowing the next scene, a mouse stole the Nutcracker without Tess noticing.

The cast next led us back to the staircase of the opening scene, where the Battle Scene commenced. The mice rolled down the staircase, a compelling use of the space, and crouched in spaces at the bottom. Tess entered and cried, wondering what had happened to her new doll. Drosselmeyer pointed to the top of the staircase, and there was the Nutcracker (Glen Lewis) come to life. I found the characters’ relative levels in space, possible because of the staircase, to be spellbinding. The battle between the rats (led by the Rat King, Noah Graham) and soldiers (led by the Nutcracker) commenced. Use of space on the separate stairs, such as staggered diagonal lines, was inventive. The Rat King’s cape and full mask felt more intriguing than menacing. With endearing moments such as a mouse using her tail to wipe tears after the death of the Rat King, the scene could be enjoyable for all, rather than potentially cause fear for the littlest ones in attendance. Afterwards, the cast led us back into the ballroom where the children and parents had danced earlier. Now it was transformed into a magical world of snow and Evergreen trees.

It all looked and felt incredibly real. The Winter Fairy, along with the Snowflakes and Snow Children (teenagers and children, respectively) added to the magic with their fully committed performances. The choreography (with Mili Ohlsen as Ballet Mistress) added original, intriguing touches — such as jazzy pencil turns and fourth-position bourrees — to this classic scene. The first act closed, followed by an intermission, and the second act began in the same main ballroom.

While I lost the feeling that we were moving through an event as in the first act, we remained close to the performers. Each variation showcased innovative choreography, modern socio-cultural consciousness, and commendable dancing artistry. In how it involves its audience, among other aspects, Island Moving Company’s Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff Mansion stands as an example of how to keep this classic tale fresh and engaging in the modern day.

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