Ding. The elevator door opens to an unfinished space. On the sixth floor of an LA skyrise. Plastic sheeting divides a construction zone from a makeshift office. Two women sit at their respective desks; one leafing through a magazine, the other looking over a clipboard. Neither seem to even notice me when I walk through the door. Neither seem to look up when I approach their desks. “Hi, is this where I check in?” I ask. A woman looks up, unamused, and responds: “For what?” I was directed to the sixth floor. This must be the right place. I respond, “The Nutcracker Suite,” but my words are drowned in the sound of a drill just feet away across plastic.
The Nutcracker Suite by American Contemporary Ballet is a two-hour immersive adaption of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Yet, rather that placing the audience in seats to watch the first act’s Christmas party, Artistic Director Lincoln Jones invites audiences to immerse themselves in the first act, partaking in Christmas time treats, champagne, and numerous wind-up toys to amuse themselves with. This first act experience is a wonderfully family friendly way to delight the inner child of adults and their kids alike as the world of The Nutcracker is brought to life around them. The second act invites audiences to take a seat (there’s only three rows so no bad seats here!) and watch a world-class ballet perform in an intimate setting while offering more treats to involve the audience. This is the ballet to ruin all other ballets for you.
While Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker focuses on Clara Stahlbaum (or Marie depending on the production), the American Contemporary Ballet performs a narrative-less production for its audience. This may seem like a bold choice—and it is—but it has purpose because this story is more about you than it is about Marie, Clara, or the Rat King. You are invited to the Stahlbaum’s party, you are able to engage your senses, and the waltzes are performed for you. You experience Act One before Act Two starts and acknowledges you in it. It’s a personal experience that creates a connection between you and the ballet that will resonate inside you for a long time after.
While the first section in an unfinished space of a high-rise may be confusing to some (and hilarious to immersive veterans), it’s a memorable start and one that definitely has guests feeling something. Personally, I loved my interactions with the women sitting at the desks as a man in a white jumpsuit emerged from behind the plastic to begin drilling various pieces of wood into her desk as onlookers looked increasingly more confused. The stark emptiness of the space and lack of warmth provides the perfect foil to the next scene in which you are invited into the Stahlbaum’s party, perfectly decorated with standing tables filled with treats and ever-flowing champagne, flocked windows flooded with natural light, and a stage with girls ice skating across it. The two scenes couldn’t be more different.
Like any good party, there’s plenty to do here besides simply enjoying the food and drink offered. Two wind-up toys offer some engagement to the audience. With a push of a button, a robotic doll springs to life, laying out three cards for guests to choose from. Select one, and she will give it to you: a beautifully designed card, adorned with poetry on its back and an artistic depiction of one of the eleven dances on the front. The attention to detail here is great too as the dolls are even placed upon dollies and wheeled away to the back just before Act Two is set to begin.
The American Contemporary Ballet bills The Nutcracker Suite as engaging for your five senses—and this couldn’t be more true. Treats for all senses fill the space from the start to finish. From the moment you step into the party, smells of freshly buttered popcorn waft through the air. Flutes of champagne are thrust into your hand and chocolate towers adorn every table. The floor beneath you is covered in a white snow as a live band orchestrates the occasion. Even as the ballerinas grace the stage, ice cream, Marzipan, and ginger cookies are distributed to the audience, denoting the dances of the same name. There’s so much engagement here that you just won’t find at any other ballet.
The Nutcracker Suite doesn’t just rely on its sweets to delight the audience; the ballerinas are technically impressive, elegant, and passionate in their movements. They expertly utilize the stage to fill it with a strong ensemble, giving the entire audience up-close-and-personal views of the prowess of the ballerinas. With eleven dances, most ballerinas are given a chance to showcase their talents, providing a wide variety of expertise. Tea allowed Hannah Barr to showcase her grace and elegance—easily becoming a favorite among our friends. Mother Ginger presented a tender moment between Mother and daughter, played by Cara Hansvick and Kaitlyn Tran, as Hansvick modeled various dances for the younger Tran to mirror. And the Grand Pas De Deux provided a perfect end as Paige Wilkey and Alberto Andrade filled the stage with lifts and spins that were more dazzling than the brightest Christmas light. It was a pleasure to see so much talent in this ensemble and how it came together so perfectly for the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Finale.
The personal feel of The Nutcracker Suite extends to after the show as the ballerinas return to the party, happily, to engage with the guests and discuss your favorite parts with you. This is a nice touch that allows the audience to just feel an even stronger connection to the experience. Normally, a meet-and-greet is an up-charge or a privilege for just friends and family; but the American Contemporary Ballet wants you to feel like family here.
On a final note, we must applaud Ruoxuan Li for her costuming in this production. The outfits are gorgeous, matching the aesthetic and feel of each dance. Mother Ginger has the two girls in matching ginger colored dresses, Tea dresses Barr in a perfect hooped skirt that extenuates her movements, and Wilkey looks regal in all her Sugar Plum glory. This is a cherry on top to a wonderful performance.
The Nutcracker Suite is a multisensory feast that will dazzle audiences of all ages. This two-hour experience immerses you in the action by inviting you into the party and creating an intimate and personal experience for you. The live band is fantastic, the immersive elements are enjoyable and memorable, and the ballet itself is technically impressive, elegant, and gorgeous to behold. This is the perfect experience to bring your kids to, to invite your husband or wife to, and to create some new memories with loved ones. We look forward to making American Contemporary Ballet’s The Nutcracker Suite a Christmas tradition.
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The Nutcracker Suite is an immersive ballet performed by the American Contemporary Ballet in Los Angeles, CA.