When international choreographer and Auburn native Sean McLeod thinks about where he currently is, and what he's doing there, one word keeps coming to mind: "crazy."
McLeod is in Wichita, Kansas, where he was brought to direct and choreograph Ballet Wichita's production of holiday season favorite "The Nutcracker."
But Ballet Wichita didn't bring McLeod there from New York just to do the same "Nutcracker" it and other companies have been doing for decades. It wanted a new "Nutcracker."
The tall order — to retell a classic Christmastime story — came from the ballet and its new guest artistic director, Karen Brown. A close friend of McLeod's, she was principal ballerina for the Dance Theatre of Harlem from 1973 to 1995 and, until 2017, executive director of Garth Fagan Dance in Rochester. After she accepted her position in Wichita, McLeod said, she asked him to join her there.
Ballet Wichita Board of Directors President Ilex Gelpi said that in McLeod, the board saw an opportunity to "put our company on the map from a professional perspective."
"We felt like the expertise and connections and knowledge that Sean brings, with his specific technique he uses with his dancers and also his choreography skills, would expose our dancers to the professional world of ballet," Gelpi said. "Having New York talent and choreography come in and help has given our dancers a lot of opportunities to grow."
With the blessing of Ballet Wichita, then, McLeod set out to reimagine "The Nutcracker." First, he went straight to its source: E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 book "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."
McLeod's main takeaway from the story was its treatment of diversity. In his opinion, the Land of Sweets depicted in the Tchaikovsky-scored "Nutcracker" ballet is a celebration of different cultures. However, he continued, modern productions have used loaded shorthand to represent those cultures, such as Chinese people sinisterly waving their fingers or Arabian people slithering like snakes.
"Inadvertently, over 200 years, people have ended up being racist with 'The Nutcracker,'" he said. "I thought it was a cool idea to challenge ourselves that maybe we have to change parts of it."
So McLeod set out to research each culture and represent it faithfully in his "Nutcracker." For instance, his Russian candy canes wear traditional dress, not tutus, and dance in Baltic steps.
The opportunity to deconstruct these cultural stereotypes came at an optimal time, McLeod said, as the national conversation on diversity and inclusion continually gains strength.
"(Hoffmann) was celebrating people's culture, so I decided to make that literal," he said. "I decided I would try to use ballet to talk about that."
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But McLeod's show does more to earn its billing as a "new 'Nutcracker.'" He set its first act in 2017. He made the previously hinted magic powers of uncle Drosselmeyer much more overt, as he was "really astonished" by the story's resemblance to "Harry Potter," he said. And he saw the Rat Queen, not the Rat King, as the show's more powerful villain, so he teases out that dynamic.
"It has the traditional touches that every 'Nutcracker' has, but it also has a modern flair," Gelpi said. "I think the audience will love it."
Aside from celebrating diversity, McLeod gave himself another goal in adapting "The Nutcracker": not putting anyone to sleep. So far, he said, the reception has been "absolutely tremendous." The show premiered with a tour in Junction City, which was followed by a series of performances for youth audiences. Its main run at Wichita's Century II Concert Hall takes place this weekend.
Ahead of the show's premiere there Friday, performer Hannah Marie Wagner said McLeod's "Nutcracker" is what both the company and the community needed. She would know: Wagner's 16-year career with Ballet Wichita includes 15 years of performing in "The Nutcracker," save for 2015, when she took a break to compete for and win the Miss Kansas beauty pageant crown.
"Everybody is so excited to show their friends and family this brand new 'Nutcracker,'" Wagner said. "It's given so many people a bigger chance to shine than they've ever had."
McLeod said a few audience members have told him how much they appreciated the show, and one of them admitted to wanting to dislike it. However, the first reaction that comes to his mind is a young black boy who saw one of "The Nutcracker's" youth performances. Afterward, the boy ran up to another young black boy in the show and said, "I want to be just like you!" McLeod said.
Just as representation is a concern of McLeod's on the stage, he's mindful of what his creative role represents off of it. Few have been trusted to so liberally adapt "The Nutcracker," he said, and they've been established white choreographers like George Balanchine and Peter Wright. Black artists do not commonly reach that tier in classical ballet, he said — especially not in Wichita.
"'The Nutcracker' is a treasure. Not a lot of people who look like me get to do it," he said. "It's such a huge undertaking that if I paid more attention to it, I would have chickened out."
McLeod said he hopes to bring his "Nutcracker" elsewhere, including Auburn. Its lessened emphasis on the holidays even makes it appropriate for year-round production, he said. Meanwhile, through his New York Institute of Dance Education, McLeod hopes to create a lasting connection with Ballet Wichita — and more opportunities like the one the company gave him.
"I got to create an adaptation of 'The Nutcracker.' I got to come to this wonderful ballet company and share it with marvelous dancers, great sponsors and benefactors," he said. "It's really crazy."
On the web
For more information on Ballet Wichita's production of "The Nutcracker," visit balletwichita.com/the-nutcracker.
For more information on the New York Institute of Dance and Education, visit nyide.com.