When most people think “drum solo”, they probably don’t think Tchaikovsky.
But composer Brete Thomas knew full well Tchaikovsky’s Christmastime classic, The Nutcracker Suite, had the potential to really rock.
And rock it will when The Nutcracker Suite Electronique is performed at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Thursday through Sunday, December 18th through 21st, with the Earthwalk Dance Company and the Santa Monica Contemporary Ballet bringing to life Thomas’s note-for-funky-note arrangement of the revered ballet.
Thomas seems to have always been in tune to Tchaikovsky.
“I was a fanatic at age two,” he says. “I would walk around with a bottle screaming, ‘Nutcracker, Mommy, Nutcracker’.”
From that young age, the Russian master’s music percolated somewhere within Thomas. Then, about 20 years ago, when Yes and Rush ruled the progressive rock scene, Thomas had the idea to create a more rocking kind of Nutcracker, which would move beyond classical into a world of progressive rock, electronica, new age, techno and funk.
Unfortunately, that vision would require moving into a recording studio for the better part of a year, which Thomas could not afford to do.
But when personal computers eventually allowed for recording the requisite 60 tracks at home, Thomas could finally turn his vision into actuality, and in 2006, he did just that.
“And it took all of 2006,” says Thomas. “I’m playing every note of every instrument of an orchestra, all by my lonesome, plus mixing and mastering. It was like being pulled into a time warp or a vortex most of the time.”
Which is somewhat appropriate, seeing as The Nutcracker Suite, when performed well, should pull the audience into somewhat of a dreamy vortex as well.
Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s version of the fairy-tale, composed in 1891 and 1892, set classical music to Alexandre Dumas pËre’s adaptation of the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Just as collaboration was vitally important in the conception of the original ballet, The Nutcracker Suite Electronique would take more than just Thomas’s composition to truly come alive. So Thomas put an ad out hoping someone might choreograph a dance number to one of his tracks.
James Keene, artistic director of the Earthwalk Dance Company, had bigger plans.
“I saw an ad from Brete online, saying he might want a choreographer to do something for a couple numbers,” Keene recounts. “I was under the impression he wanted someone to do a full-scale project.”
So, much to Thomas’s delight, Keene set out to choreograph the entire Electronique. Keene updated the classic, setting the action at the grand opening of a nightclub called “Nutcracker,” where a grown-up Clara meets her handsome prince.
“It’s the traditional story told from an adult, nightclub-going point of view,” says Keene.
Eventually, the project became so full-scale that Earthwalk didn’t have enough dancers to meet the demands of the production. Since Keene also danced for the Santa Monica Contemporary Ballet, “it just seemed natural to join forces.”
Which is when artistic director Honey Almazar, and the rest of the Santa Monica Contemporary Ballet, came on board.
Besides starring as Clara in the production, Almazar also choreographs three numbers in the contemporary style.
“Having danced the classical version all my life, to now make a contemporary version is a challenge because you want to just step back into the classical version. All these steps come back to you when you’re choreographing, so you have to constantly step back and ask yourself, ‘is it too classical?’ But the music definitely helped,” says Almazar.
To Keene, the different style is just one more facet of the amalgamation.
“[Almazar] is versed in contemporary ballet, and the rest is in classic modern, which is more my love, my style of choregraphy. There is also a little hint of Vegas Bob Fosse, here and there.”
There are many examples of why this is “not your mother’s nutcracker,” as advertised, but none as telling as the kicking drum solo in the middle of “Russian Dance Trepak,” except for perhaps the fact that Herr Drosselmeyer, the mysterious godfather from the original ballet, now has a history as a drag queen named Sugar Plum.
Performances Thursday through Saturday begin at 8 p.m. A Sunday matinee performance starts at 2 p.m.
Highways Performance Space is located at 1651 18th St. in Santa Monica.
General admission is $25. Seniors and students are $15.
Information, (310) 315-1459, www.highwaysperformance.org./.