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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Dance Wisconsin's Nutcracker Fantasy reworks a traditional favorite
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Dance Wisconsin's <i>Nutcracker Fantasy</i>
Dance Wisconsin's Nutcracker Fantasy

This past weekend, Nutcracker Fantasy by Dance Wisconsin ran at the Wisconsin Union Theater in a 35th-anniversary presentation. It is a sometimes trippy reworking of the holiday classic. Artistic director JoJean Retrum has done some serious tinkering, and at times these new ideas work. But at other times I missed a more traditional approach.

A young girl listens to her grandmother's fanciful tale about her uncle's toy workshop, and then she lives the magical story, first at a party, then in a wintery land where the lonely Nutcracker longs to dance with the frozen Sugar Plum Fairy. Retrum augments Tchaikovsky's famous score with additional music, some of it original, and she moves several of the act-two variations into act one.

The party at Drosselmeyer's is pretty crowded; there are so many guests that sometimes it's hard to focus on the dancing. Cute elves pop out of Mother Ginger's skirt, toy soldiers move in tidy formations and a giant teddy bear dances with the children. Dolls come to life in the form of lively jack-in-the-boxes (Jonathan Person and Ashlyn Knieriem, doing good work here); Perrot and his girl Pirouette; and two ballerina dolls.

Person and Emily Jamieson's Arabian pas de deux is the highlight of act one. Jamieson is focused and steely, while Person is fiery and a bit sexy. Also doing fine dancing are the Spanish dancers, Anthony Cannarella-Andersen and Jordan Zweifel. The Chinese dance gets a bit long, but the soloist's appearances are a bright spot. Marie (Maggie Batterman with big eyes, bouncing ringlets and a pleasant manner) is introduced to the Nutcracker (Kanyon Elton) before they board a train and are transported to act two.

That act opens with carolers, and we peer into a window where sparkly couples dance at a party. Then there are ice skaters gliding and flirting in charming costumes, and a street scene with a quartet of hilarious little snowmen. They dance, skinny little legs in black boots emerging as they rise from the ground.

In a forest, we see an ice princess (Natalya Weise). She is elegant, but long poles covered in fabric extend her arms, which would be lovely enough left at their natural length. She is convinced by Marie to defrost the Sugar Plum Fairy, who makes a brief appearance before the Poinsettias dance to the sumptuous "Waltz of the Flowers." This is Retrum's best work, and it is quite pretty. She obviously has a good ear for music and a knack for creating interesting tableaux. The soloists, Christina Wyttenbach and Zweifel, are graceful.

The Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by Nicole Teague with crystalline precision that reveals her strength. Her Cavalier is the handsome Justin Genna, looking like a movie star with his slicked back hair and long, muscular limbs. Both are guest artists from the Milwaukee Ballet, and they are very good indeed. Their pas de deux is technically challenging and features many show-stopping lifts.

"Still Still Still" would probably be a pleasant piece not coming on the heels of that triumphant pas de deux, but it feels a bit shoehorned in, more so than some of the other departures. The snow scene, always one of my favorites, is well conceived and executed, but it probably would fare better placed in the lineup where it normally goes.

Retrum does a nice job working with dancers from many different local studios. She definitely has a way with teaching boys. Her most famous former pupil is ballet superstar Ethan Stiefel, and Genna is also an alum. I see promise, ability and good training in several of the other young men.

If you're in the mood for an out-of-the-box take on the Nutcracker -- with live music (the Dance Wisconsin Orchestra acquit themselves quite nicely) -- you might want to check this out next year. If you're a Nutcracker purist, there are still scenes that will make you happy, but you may be a bit uneasy with some of the proceedings.

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