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A nimble 'Nutcracker'

Boston Ballet fits plenty of fantasy into a smaller new venue

Most major productions of "The Nutcracker" suffer from fantasy sprawl. There's the mice, the duel, the Flowers, the Marzipan Shepherdesses, and sets evoking the entire United Nations council of Arabians, Chinese, Russians, and Spaniards outleaping one another into the night. Even for kids, it can be excessive.

For Boston Ballet, it took a forced change in venue to instigate a "Nutcracker" renovation. After the Wang ditched Boston Ballet's yearly production (in favor of the randier Rockettes), Broadway in Boston came to the rescue, but could offer only the Colonial Theatre, a tiny space used mostly for drama. The ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, was faced with this SAT-like conundrum: How do you sandwich four casts with 330 children in seven scenes, with seven divertissements and 15 trucks of sets, including a cranky clockmaker's studio and a Rockefeller-sized Christmas tree, onto a stage that is 38 feet wide, or half the Wang's size?

The answer was to not try, but to reimagine.

"We're not shrinking anything," said Nissinen last week, breaking from a Flowers rehearsal. "We're creating a whole new production for that space."

Taking cues from a "Nutcracker" he staged in Canada, Nissinen worked with set designer Walt Spangler and lighting designer Pierre Lavoie to craft a tighter, more disciplined production that retains most of the elements of Boston Ballet's original work (a relief to Marzipan fans worldwide). Nissinen has reworked staging, choreography, and parts of the story line to make clear that all this is springing from the dreams of the young protagonist, Clara. His partners had to figure out how to make his ideas visual.

The universal goal was to do more in less space. Old sets were banished in favor of four that could be altered slightly, often with different lighting, to change the scene or mood. A scrim will locate the action in 1880s Nuremberg, Germany, one winter night. Drosselmeier creates his Nutcracker in an efficiently clean workspace, represented by a large, stunning clock face, similar to one stationed on a downtown Brooklyn apartment house that Spangler sees riding the subway.

Nissinen's crew vacuumed the Silberhaus's living room, removing the presents and party tables groaning with hors d'oeuvres. Portals will frame the stage with 3,312 bulbs, adding depth. Many scenes are lit in a cold white, but with added peach and purple tints, the lighting ignites colors of the various nationalities' dress.

When the hour grows late and the party guests start to leave, the mood changes. Lavoie uses Vari*Lites, roving beams pioneered by the rock band Genesis at concerts. They create more shadows and a darker mood, setting the stage for the mice to enter.

Ah, the mice. That was Lavoie's biggest puzzle. With less scenery, there were fewer places to hang lights to signify 20 pairs of mouse eyes. Lavoie, a Montreal designer who works with touring companies, is expert at fixes on the fly.

"Mikko wanted mouse eyes on walls," Lavoie said. "We've been mulling over that for months." He found a California company that makes neon decorations for cards. "I contacted them and they're making me strips of luminous tape, which we'll . . . apply onto scenery and with a flick of a switch will be fluorescent green."

In most productions, the Nutcracker duels with the Mouse King alongside a large, but not steroidal, Christmas tree. Nissinen couldn't waste stage space on tree branches. Spangler had to get that tree out of the way. The set designer, responsible for a recent production of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central Park, dove into Nutcracker literature and was reminded that these fantasies spring from the mind of a child.

"When I was a child, the Christmas tree was probably about 8 feet tall, but I remember feeling it's this huge, huge Christmas tree," said Spangler. "Everything is slightly larger than life." So Spangler makes the tree grow and grow, until all you see is the bottom-most bough stretching over the heads of the dueling dancers. "It's like we are seeing the scene from the perspective of the mice."

Nissinen makes his biggest character change at the end of Act I.

The Nutcracker has knocked off the evil Mouse King with Clara's help. He then steps out of his soldier's uniform and reveals himself to be a prince in disguise. Clara is transported through the Land of Snow, symbolized by a few large, airy snowflakes, to the Kingdom of Sweets, aloft on a giant, delicate snowflake. "From Clara's point of view, she's being whisked up into the snow," Spangler says.

Surprisingly, Nissinen managed to cut only 13 dancers from each night's performance: the prince's character, plus 12 others. There's less blizzard to the Snowflakes, having lost four flakes. The bouquet is three Flowers fewer. Group dances were reined in to center stage every so often. Over the course of its run, the production will include 270 local children, 70 fewer than last year.

The new choreography has required dancers to scrub their memories of steps learned last year. Sarah Wroth, a second-year corps member, was a Flower last year, as she is this year, but now she's on the opposite side, dancing new steps. "It's like if you go home tonight and brush your teeth with the other hand," she said. "It's a challenge, creating magic grandeur on a smaller stage."

In addition to losing stage space, the musicians lost pit space. Some will play offstage, the sound from their instruments piped in.

Spangler is confident that the audience will not be disappointed. "What I like about it, there is an intimacy that is forced," he says. "A lot of sections of the ballet are not about 150 people onstage, but a key 20 or 30 people. I feel this is going be a nice, cozy, intimate envelope for that."

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