There are three restaurants at the intersection of Grove and Mercer Streets — one Mediterranean, one Pakistani, and one American. Also, there’s City Hall. I mention this because it’s here that “Jersey City Nutcracker,” our version of the seasonal dance favorite, locates a magic manhole that allows its inhabitants a glimpse of the city as it could be. Even in our fantastic visions, it seems, we’re resolutely multicultural, and we never travel too far from government oversight.
Our local “Nutcracker” is an annual tradition for a reason: it honors the source text without ever being too scrupulous about it or indulging in the sort of irreverence that would capsize a project that’s primarily aimed at kids. For eleven years, the Nimbus Arts Center has asked some of its most talented dancers to tackle this well-worn material. They also subject the audience to cute overload, which arrives in the form of several squadrons of child performers, including a few who are barely old enough for grammar school. Many of these student dancers come from the School of Nimbus, the Arts Center’s education program, and they acquit themselves so nicely that the entire production could double as an advertisement for the academy.
“Jersey City Nutcracker” also juxtaposes the Nimbus crew with a pair of young stars. Beta Vino and Nola Walker, whose dancing is crisp and enthusiastic, play a couple of city kids out in Hudson County on Christmas Eve. As it also happens in the Balanchine version of the Nutcracker you’d encounter at Lincoln Center, the children are given a statue of a nutcracker in military dress by an eccentric inventor. Soon afterward, they slip into a dream. Beyond that, co-writers Alicia Souder and Nimbus director and choreographer Samuel Pott take all the liberties they’d like. In the Jersey City version, the Land of Sweets stuffed with indulgences becomes a wholesome panorama of positive city archetypes — treats for the hopeful urbanist rather than chocolates and candy canes. Drosselmeyer, the inventor and magician, isn’t a mysterious, dangerous presence at all; instead, he’s genial and conciliatory, like Ossie Davis in Do The Right Thing, and he spends most of his time courting a narrator as straightlaced as Ruby Dee. Even the Rat King isn’t beyond redemption. Instead, the gift of a single flower is enough to reform him.
In doing this, Nimbus strips away the danger at the heart of the “Nutcracker,” embedded there like a splinter by E.T.A. Hoffman, the original short-story writer who gave this chestnut its spine — and its bite. We never get that sense of deep and numinous trouble, trouble that taps into childhood fears and fantasies about the mystery of Christmas, the creeping feeling of surveillance, the violence embedded within the act of gift-giving, and the terrible recognition of budding appetite. Thus, ours is a “Nutcracker” that’s more for grown-ups than it is for children. The kids in the show are faultless and idealized, just the way that adults like them. It is hard to imagine a child, swept up in the desperate longings and budding existential terrors that the holiday season engenders, identifying with Maria and Chris, the show’s two pleasant young leads.
The pair virtually disappear from the story after the descent into the sewers. The second act of this show becomes a simple exercise in that which Nimbus does so well: ace dance sequences that draw from classic choreography and ballet, but pivot, often, to moves and attitudes redolent of pop-soul music videos and concerts. The Nimbus dancers are so good at this that it never feels like pastiche. Instead, it’s more like old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing post-modernism, the sort where a performer makes a recognizable reference to a Beyoncé clip in the middle of an otherwise straightforward dance sequence. Every dancer in the company has this superpower in his or her arsenal, but “Jersey City Nutcracker” includes contributions from two of the very best at this — the explosive Aanyse Pettiford Chandler, and Nimbus standout Mika Greene, whose every move onstage is discharged with precision and personality. The finest moments of the “Jersey City Nutcracker” belonged to those two performers. Their spotlight sequences matched the poise of ballet to the sense of freedom and pride of hip-hop, and they were rousing to watch.
The more traditional pieces were just as accomplished, but they weren’t as revelatory. Shayla Hutton was a dutiful Sugar Plum fairy, even if her execution felt more athletic than magical. Her partner Tyler Choquette didn’t miss a mark, either. LeighAnn Curd did her level best as a dancing Lady Liberty and very nearly pulled it off, despite the heavy symbolic freight carried by the role. She didn’t impart much menace to her turn as the Rat King — I didn’t reckon the Nutcracker was in any real peril, and I doubt any of the kids in the audience did, either — but her kinetic performance was impressive in its vivacity. Let’s just say she got in her ten thousand steps.
The Rat King vs. Nutcracker battle that forms the traditional climax of the first act is set on an imaginary Jersey City street. Yet there’s not much that can be done to modernize or Jersey-ize the European soldier’s uniform that the title character is forced by custom to wear. Given the show’s theme and setting, it’s downright odd that we’re asked to side with a symbol of Prussian military authority over a typically Jersey street urchin in a rumble. Clearly aware of this, Souder and Pott give the Nutcracker’s forces the poppier dance steps and ask the rats to play it a bit more traditionally. This they do. But the conceptual dissonance remains.
All these characters, including the children, are denizens of a “dark and dreary city,” one populated by masked bullies, marked by chain link fences and traffic cones, illuminated by the headlights of speeding cars, and poorly decorated by municipal Christmas trees that won’t stay lit. The Mayor is shown browbeating a functionary and demanding the delivery of eight hundred votes; though he’s named as Hague in the script, there’s nothing else in “Jersey City Nutcracker” to indicate that the story is set in the past. In another instance of the near-supernatural inescapability of politics, and politicians, in this town, the role of the compromised and dissembling Mayor was played by Ward D councilman Yousef Saleh on Wednesday night. Saleh, who is part of the actual Mayor’s ironclad majority on the City Council, seemed to find this all quite droll. I admit I did not think it was very funny. But perhaps I’ve been living here too long.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky didn’t like “The Nutcracker” very much. He wrote it quickly, and for a wage, and he felt that the music was not representative of his talents or his vision. In this way, he was rather like a serious rocker who coughs out a pop hit that becomes so famous that it ends up defining him in spite of his intentions. Temperamental, sure, but the composer wasn’t wrong. It’s a great seasonal irony: every great dancer has taken to the stage in a production of “The Nutcracker,” but “The Nutcracker” isn’t all that easy to dance to. It’s become a holiday standard because of Balanchine, its association with Christmas, and the haunting quality of Hoffman’s story — a tale that seems to speak straight to the insecurities and unruly drives of youth. Pott, Souder, and the Nimbus company of dancers have lovingly transplanted the show in Jersey City soil, they’ve given it lots of care, and, to their credit, they’ve let it grow some thorny shoots. Their respect for the show’s curious and persistent power is apparent. Curd, Choquette, Hutton, Pettiford Chandler, and Greene get the most out of this material, and even manage to loosen it up a bit. Imagine what they could do if they were given a beat.