In 2008, Vanessa White brought The Slutcracker, a two-act burlesque interpretation of The Nutcracker, to Somerville.
“This was supposed to be a one-off thing,” she said. “A week before the first show, 140 out of 3,600 tickets sold, and at that point I thought it was dead. I thought to myself, ‘I tried to do something… at least I tried.’”
Now, in 2011, The Slutcracker has opened its fourth season in Somerville, and the public response has been firmly positive.
What made this show so successful is hard to pinpoint, even for director Vanessa White.
A Somerville tradition now in it's fourth season
It's definitely not your average Christmas stage performance. A risqué journey through Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, The Slutcracker includes pole dancing, belly dancing, a giant phallus instead of a nutcracker, and a realm of promiscuity instead of the Land of Sweets. In White's version of the story, Clara, one of the main characters, struggles between social constructs and her natural desires. The show is a comedic take on social veneers, modesty and decorum, and it's definitely not for children.
It may have been the timing of The Slutcracker's debut, directly after Wall Street crumbled, that helped lead to its success.
“Tickets to The Nutcracker were 100 dollars apiece,” said White. “Leave the kids at home. Have some drinks, have some fun, and watch a racy burlesque for a fraction of the price. That was my selling point.”
Looking at The Slutcracker's subject matter, part of the appeal may have been in the show's honesty and willingness to confront American social norms. “Every year we focus on different idiosyncratic dynamics,” said White. “We take the suburban vanilla and buck the norms.”
Whatever the reason, three years later, Slutcracker is still here and thriving.
The growth of the play since its humble beginnings has been constant. “The first year was terrifying,” said White, “I spent more money than I had. There was no set. There wasn’t even a rehearsal. Opening night was rehearsal.” But that first show and the town’s response gave The Slutcracker reason to forge ahead.
As a burlesque production, it has a creative allure. It has become an opportunity for set and production designers to think outside the box.
A designer for the show, affectionately named Mr. Fusion by the cast, calls his coworkers the “most amazing group of creative enablers.” Making a tree grow, making a dancer levitate and creating a candy-cane-striped giant phallus with the mechanical ability to ... produce snow (what were you thinking?) are only a few of the logistical problems posed by a production that is designed to break the rules.
Dancers find a similar attraction to The Slutcracker in breaking away from the rigorous style of ballet and dancing of Tchaikovsky’s classics. In essence, this creative freedom is why White created the show.
Burlesque and ballet
White trained professionally in dancing, studying at the Boston Ballet and performing in Spindle City. Following a knee injury that halted her career, she gained a new perspective on the dancing industry. “Ballet is so structured, and so is each ballet dancer. There is no room for variation,” said White.
The Slutcracker can be said to be the antithesis to this hyper-focus on perfection in both dance and figure.
“There are limitations to the body,” said White. “No matter how much training, or how many bouts with anorexia. The body still won’t move a certain way, look a certain way.”
Many dancers face this physical barrier, and are forced to limit their careers, but The Slutcracker instills no such limits.
That isn’t to say that White abandons her respect for professional dancing. In fact, part of the conception of The Slutcracker is due entirely to her respect for the profession. While performing burlesque, White found herself missing ballet’s rigorous form and it’s beautiful style. She wanted to combine the freedom of burlesque with the classic beauty of ballet, and so The Slutcracker was born.
“The sex positive nature of the show and the different looks, the variety in dancers, isn’t so much a message. This show is organically sex positive and diverse,” said White, “That’s my style.”
White’s style on everything taboo is prevalent throughout the show, and it’s shamelessly honest. More importantly, it’s shamelessly relatable.
“There’s a contrast between what sex is supposed to be, and what it really is,” said White. “People are glad that we’ve put it all up here on stage, in public, rather than left it in a drawer somewhere.”
The Slutcracker shows through Dec. 24 at Somerville Theatre.