The run-up to Christmas means Nutcracker season in the dance world, but here’s one that veers away from the conventional narrative into a joyful celebration of identity and the dream of being and loving whoever you wish.
In Drew McOnie’s new show, the protagonist Clara becomes Clive (Mark Samaras), a boy who’d rather play with the fairy on the Christmas tree than the Action Man his mildly disapproving dad gives him. Luckily, the plastic doll turns into a bona-fide hunk (Amonik Melaco) who takes him off to the Land of Dreams where he can live out his best sequin-clad life.
First things first, the music is brilliant. The reason the Nutcracker has endured as the perennial Christmas ballet is because of Tchaikovsky’s score. It’s been jazzified before, famously in Duke Ellington’s 1960 The Nutcracker Suite album, but here composer Cassie Kinoshi rewrites it for now, played live by a quartet, the heady sound of the London jazz scene but with those familiar tinkly melodies threaded through the layers, reinvented and revoiced: March of the Toy Soldiers with a Latin beat or turned into a waltz; Dance of the Mirlitons played, I think, in 11/8 at some point.
The pop-up venue created for the show, the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, is a former bar/cafe at the back of the Southbank Centre and it’s bijou – the seating space, the stage, all tiny. It’s too small for dance, and McOnie’s dance is big. He’s used to musical theatre stages, Broadway and open-air theatre.
The energy is projected outward, legs flung high, big clear shapes, easy flowing phrases. It’s a different experience being so up-close that you can smell the dancers (fragrant, since you asked), but they don’t use the intimacy in a dramatic way. It could’ve been an opportunity to find some introspection, some more “real” moments amid the Technicolor fantasy. But this is not really a show about subtlety. Ryan Dawson Laight’s fab costumes set the tone, in saturated colours and a truckload of sparkle, zhuzhed-up ski-wear for the Waltz of the Snowflakes and superhero hot pants.
McOnie has good storytelling instincts and he cleverly condenses the plot. Instead of the parade of national dances in the original ballet, for example, the Action Man sips from a rack of drinks in rainbow colours, each one sparking off a different divertissement.
Steps-wise it’s not McOnie’s most inventive choreography and he and the dancers – including the excellent Chanelle Anthony and ballet dancer Patricia Zhou – are stymied by the space, but somehow by the end they’ve made it work. McOnie danced with Matthew Bourne early in his career, a choreographer who paved the way for gay characters in dance, and this is like a more youthful version of Bourne, rainbow confetti-strewn, out and proud.
There’s some cheese here, but it’s impossible not to like; ultimately a sweet, sparkly, enjoyable hour with a (nut)cracking soundtrack.
• At Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, Southbank Centre, London, until 6 January.