by Lou Mancinelli
This Thanksgiving two local residents are presenting “The Nutcracker” with a local twist. Instead of Clara, the main character, and her Prince traveling by nutshell boat to the Land of Sweets in Act II, they will meander along Germantown Avenue in and out of chocolate, coffee and tea shops as the avenue might have looked in the late 1800s.
Dancers from the Philadelphia Dance Theatre, located in Mt. Airy, will perform the traditional ballet with Northwest Philadelphia as its setting on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25, 7 p.m., and Nov. 26, both 1 and 4 p.m., at the Kurtz Performing Arts Center at the William Penn Charter School, 3000 W. School House Lane in Germantown. Local artist Christopher Fox painted the backdrops that will create the setting for this reinterpretation.
“Typically ‘The Nutcracker’ has been set in Victorian Germany, and that always bothered me,” explained Joy Capponi, a Mt. Airy resident and director of the Philadelphia Dance Theatre. “I always felt that the rich history of the neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia should be shared and celebrated in a new version of this traditional seasonal ballet.
“We’ve been doing ‘The Nutcracker’ for 10 years, but our budget always restricted me from carrying out my vision. We even had to perform at Hatboro High School, even though we are in Mt. Airy. But last year the Kurtz Center opened up nearby, which is big for us.
“We should be outreaching and educating in our own community, and now we can do that. We have local business sponsors, and our sets represent places we are all familiar with. It’s very exciting for the dancers. Now we have a winter scene as it really looks in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown”
For Christopher Fox, who was raised in the Northwest, attended Central High School (as did his two brothers) and still lives in Mt. Airy, this retelling of a classic tale served as an opportunity for him to weave together a story that he says for as many times as he has seen it, has always been somewhat unclear to him.
In the original, in Act II, after a large Christmas Eve party, Clara has gone to bed with her broken nutcracker fashioned after a soldier. She received it as a gift, but her brother Fritz breaks it when he is too rough with the wooden toy. In a dream, Clara envisions herself traveling with a Prince who has been transformed from the nutcracker.
But Capponi and Fox have set the dinner party in the Thomas Mansion, a Gothic style home built in 1869 that’s just off Wissahickon Avenue between Johnson Street and Walnut Lane. The Land of Snow, where the Prince takes Clara in her dream, is Tommy’s Hill, a popular sledding spot at Johnson Street just off Lincoln Drive, in Fairmount Park.
Fox snapped photographs and drew sketches of buildings on Germantown Avenue he saw that looked how a building might have appeared at the end of the 19th century. He paid attention to things like architectural style and moldings. Fox’s original paintings were large watercolors. They were sent to a studio in White Plains, New York, where artists painted replicas of the watercolors on 25 by 40 foot canvases.
“I wanted to make it unique,” he said, “more personal.”
In the traditional ballet, in Act II Clara is rewarded for saving the Prince with a celebration of sweets from around the world. In this weekend’s production, instead of coffee from Spain, Clara and the Prince will walk into Asher’s Chocolates. Asher Candy was housed in Germantown in 1899 before it became a popular east coast brand. They will get coffee at inFusion Coffee & Tea, located today in Mt. Airy.
Fox, a 1980 graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, has taught painting at the Haverford School for 30 years. In 1991, he earned a masters degree from New York University in studio arts. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s he owned a restoration business that restored a number of homes in Northwest Philly.
And while “The Nutcracker’s” original story, with its progression of dreams and fantasy might have been hard to follow for Fox, other provocative ideas were not. When asked about his own art work, Fox talks about things like chaos theory and the Newtonian physics he was taught as a youth.
At 52, he says in his decades of painting he has experimented with all styles from landscapes to abstract. Most recently, he has shifted from abstract work to a new style. Much of the work on his website consists of images that one might first think to be unrelated.
His painting “Constant Properties” includes a formal dance scene, beans and a picture of a clump of stars in the night sky. Fox explained that this painting and others “deal with new ideas in science that contradict what we were taught about how the world works.” He cites “clumping theory.” In the past, scientists thought when you picked up a clump of sand, the gathering of its particles was random, but now scientists think the opposite, that forms repeat, he explained.
“I’m kind of interested in what happens if I unlearn what I was taught.” In a sense, that is one way one could think about the new-age production of “The Nutcracker” set now in Northwest Philly.
The new production was made possible by a grant from the Marjorie Silvus Foundation. The Victorian costumes in Act I were made possible by a grant from the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club. The Philadelphia Dance Theatre is headquartered in the New Covenant Campus, 7500 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. Ticket information is available at www.philadancetheatre.org or 215-247-4272. For more information about Chris Fox, visit www.chrisfox.org.