High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Adjectival Reversal: The Nutcracker on Horseback, Noble Horse Chicago

So a while ago, my friend B was soliciting opinions on whether or not her elder munchkin was old enough to enjoy The Nutcracker this Kwannukmastice season. Strangely, this led me down a circuitous path out of my neurosis about Christmas presents. You see, I got my nephew A a large-ish Christmas gift (jointly with my parents and little brother and sister-in-law), and I was concerned that this would look like favoritism, because his sister C was getting only books. I'd been thinking about taking her to a show as an auxiliary present, when pal M said the magical words: "Nutcracker on Horseback." Of course, I ended up taking both of them, thus failing to bring balance to the force.

Actually, I wound up taking the two munchkins as well as my brother and sister-in-law, because one can never have enough beards. We'd initially planned an evening performance, but I think I've mentioned that it's about as easy to get on these kids' schedules as it is to get a tour of the White House these days. We wound up with tickets for the Sunday matinee, and I don't think the squirts appreciated little bro and I were augmenting the present even further by giving up half the Bears game.

Once the OMGWTFBBQ of the simple fact of a Nutcracker on horseback began, the "The Hell?" there's a riding hall in the middle of Old Town? Try as I might, I just couldn't get my mind around an 1871 hippodrome sitting within spitting distance of my beloved Salpicon (oooh, I hope the horses don't spit on it). I stopped looking for the wonderfully weird in Old Town the day I decided to seek out the address of the studio/theater of Herschell Gordon Lewis and realized that the Blood Shed (where Robert Sinese, father of Gary got his start as a film editor) was now Condos. Consider my faith in the weird renewed.

Seriously, it's a lovely building made lovelier that you've just had to wrangle your way into a parking space in a neighborhood congested with the most oblivious of yuppies, you're walking down streets so narrow that parking with wheels on the curb is standard operating procedure, and suddenly, you come upon this lovely building gated away from the furious pace of the neighborhood around it. The warm fuzzies build as you go inside. The lights are low (much of it is provided by gas lanterns, candles, and torches), the wood is dark, the ceilings are high and crossed by serious-looking beams.

In the hall, the riding area takes up most of the space, and there's tiered seating at long counters only at one end. At the opposite end from the seats are two entrances to the ring, one opening on to a short flight of stairs, the other large enough to admit horses and riders, and there's another entrance for them to the right. There's a small show ring slightly closer to the seating than center.

The horses are beautiful and the riders and trainers are obviously very skilled. We got to see the black Andalusian that is mentioned on that page, as well as an American quarterhorse and several of the white Lusitanos. (I'll admit that I was somewhat bummed that my munchkin beards showed no interest in meeting the horses afterward. They were very pretty!)

There were a number of single-horse tricks, where a rider (or, in one case, a trainer who walked along side) demonstrated the horse's ability to curtsey, do a controlled rear, jump, high-step, etc. I feel certain that this makes me a bad person for wanting every animal to be my monkey and amuse me, but goddamn, a horse making a curtsey is just cute, ok?. Other portions centered on a group of horses galloping de-by-side in step with one another, demonstrating synchronized movements and weaving in and out of formation, and carrying riders engaging "in combat." There were also a few demonstrations of gate jumping, both with single horses and several working together. Later in the show, the emphasis was on the cossack riding, which was both nerve wracking and impressive.

So the space is cool and beautiful, the horses and riders ditto. Unfortunately, the whole Nutcracker conceit was a bit goofy and not particularly well thought out. Basically, an unseen narrator read snippets of a clumsily written synopsis of the story that had been selected because they had some vague relationship to the type of tricks that they wanted to demonstrate. There was a lot of down time. I'm not complaining about that: Obviously you have to move horses on and off, then stage others, and with the limited entrances, this is not going to be a speedy process. But it does tend to drag the narrative down.

Adding to the narrative problems was the fact that they seemed to have a less clear concept of Clara than did either Hoffman or Dumas (as my sister-in-law pointed out, if your heroine is young enough to be playing with dolls, selling a romance with a prince has its creep factor). The actress/dancer was likable enough, but she was left as the only thing going on for long, long stretches of time. They also castrated poor Fritz and made him an extremely bratty sister who gets no comeuppance for being a stone cold bitch. Likewise, they built up the Mouse King as evil and having a grudge against Godfather Drosselmeyer, then he's defeated in short order (and it wasn't even him standing on the backs of two horses as pictured, it was Drosselmeyer) and the nutcracker-now-prince spends all his time sucking up to Clara. I believe that I read something indicating that the matinee performances are shorter than those in the evening, so it's likely that we were experiencing the worst of the worst in terms of disjointed storytelling.

Still, it seems like the hall is better suited to shows that simply focus on the horses, riders, and how they train. For example, early on, it seemed clear that some of the single horses were just learning, and their tricks were consequently pretty simple. It would have been interesting to hear more about how they train them, the pace, the techniques, and so on. I'd definitely be interested in going back to see a show that played up the considerable strengths of this group more appropriately.

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