Rat On!

The Nutcracker: Been there, done that. The classic Christmas ballet has been grandly produced, fiddled with, animated, televised and Barbiefied to death. But this year, Boulder aerial choreographer Nancy Smith and her Frequent Flyers company decided to transform the holiday cliche with a countercultural twist provided by longtime Boulder Ballet stagehand and resident Rat King Kit Marcy, who conjectured one year in jest: What if the rats won? That would keep audiences on their toes.

Smith and crew are banking on it: After twelve years of defying gravity and convention with their Theatre of the Vampires Halloween fantasy at CU's Macky Auditorium each fall, they've chucked that major production (and the pricier venue) for an inaugural run of Ratcracker, a delightfully silly confection rooted in the traditional Nutcracker storyline while delivering a gentle message of peace. It opens Friday night for a one-weekend run at the Dairy Center for the Arts.

The lighthearted yet humanistic production, Smith notes, was a collaborative effort for the troupe from start to finish. "I'm the artistic director, but I'm not necessarily the head cheese all the time," she says of her role with Frequent Flyers. The first thing she did for Ratcracker was hire Marcy on as a consultant; he also plays Herr Drosselmeyer in the production and provides narration.

There's simply nothing stodgy about this saucy production. In addition to the Frequent Flyers' aboveground choreography, which uses various airborne contraptions, a non-traditional score runs the gamut from Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite to Elvis, Madonna and "Peter Gunn." Molded plastic rat helmets created by Denver mask-maker Alex Gorelik are also a wonder to behold. But it's the retooled characterizations, Smith says, that provide the most pizzazz. "Instead of the Snow Queen, we have the Bubble Queen: She dresses in bubble wrap and bounces around on bungees. And the Sugar Plum Fairy becomes the Sugar Rum Fairy in a rope and harness and a crazy lime-green tutu for a costume." Tipsy-daisy!

How do the conquering rats avoid hisses and boos from the audience? They're funny. In this version, Clara gets a stuffed rat for Christmas. (It's disappointed brother Fritz who has to settle for the Nutcracker Prince; he rips off the rat's tail in revenge.) As she drifts off to sleep, Clara dreams that her father is the nutcracker, taken prisoner by the crafty rodents. "They take him off to open him up and see what makes him tick...and they find out he has an overdeveloped military-industrial complex," Smith reveals. The denouement, she intimates, is that they summarily re-educate the hawkish patriarch so that Clara may grow up in a safer, cleaner world.

In Act Two, the familiar slate of international dances take on a new tone, too. The Chinese dance, for instance, becomes The Art of War, featuring a Chinese martial artist performing to traditional Chinese music, while the Arabian extravaganza, The Art of Love, features a trained Middle Eastern dancer swinging on aerial fabric. And all through the sparse but fanciful plot, there's that underlying hope for better things to come -- not just for Clara, but for everyone in attendance. Laughter, after all, is one of the best places to start.

Think of this as Smith's little Christmas card to the arts-supporting community.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd