Nutcracker – Joe Clark – Death of the Mouse King

Nutcracker – Joe Clark – Death of the Mouse King

Ballet requires a type of deep, personal, commitment. One that is so strong that every company has those moments … when the dancers “have to” cut loose and do something crazy.

The more intense the demand the more probable that a moment of insanity will take over and break free from all the trained patterns of control that define and shape the forms of excellence and perfectionism that are the ballet world.

As a dancer there are those moments of extreme freedom that explode out and then become the most magical and precious memories on stage.

Dancers are nothing … if not very serious about their art. But there are those times … when we desperately need to break away from the patterns and creatively “muck” … with the entire thing.
It takes a type of artistic courage to step past our perfectionist side and to allow something wild, spontaneous, and wonderful take us over in a performance.

You are wondering … right now … to what I am referring!

There are those instants when the repetitiveness of a series of performances, (such as in the month long runs of Nutcracker) that each dancer is so sick and tired of listening to the same music for 3 months of rehearsals and performances … that we being to crack.
We can get … punchy.
And that desire for perfection gets overridden by the whimsical and humorous sides of our nature.
Joe Clark (of Ballet West) did a moment that was perfectly choreographed during the Mouse scene in the 1st Act of Nutcracker, in Ballet West.

First … you have to understand that changing anything … when you have 5 casts of children dancing on stage with you during a scene is fraught with difficulties. There are toy soldiers, fighting the mice and the Mouse King.
And there are usually four different ranks of toy soldiers: officers, infantry, calvary and artillery. Then there is Clara dancing around with the Nutcracker. And of course, the transformation of the Nutcracker into a prince that will carry her into the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Finally, there is a tree growing in the middle of it all.

This scene is a complicated choreographic event that has every stage crew on its toes and the dancers trying to not run into the children while they dance chaotically around all of them.
The scene is designed to be frenetic.
The Mice are almost always the male dancers in a ballet company. They have “paper-mache” mouse heads and are in boiling hot … furry costumes.
That is because the women are all doing a quick change in the back … to go from the party scene (long dresses and regular shoes) into the Snowflake scene.
The mouse costumes feel like a sauna and they are very heavy. They are also awkward because the mice have to have a round tummy and so there are hoops inside the costume to also navigate. The mice are to express the chaotic scattering feeling of mice under attack. The movement and actions are to show the quick minds and thoughts of mice.

This is not the men’s favorite thing to do. They try to make it funny and to crack smiles in the audience.
Male dancers do have a great sense of humor for such outlandish things.

The Mouse King is the Master of Ceremonies in this hectic scene.

Often, the girls do not see what is transpiring on stage because we are trying to get headpieces secured, tutus on, point shoes tied, and in position to begin the Snowflake scene.

But one Christmas Eve, Joe Clark (a principal dancer) and the Mouse King decided to celebrate the Christmas Eve performance by completely changing the choreography.
This is no small feat.
Such a thing takes planning and perfect execution.

The girls had heard whispers that the men were up to something and that it was going to happen during the Mouse Scene.
We all rushed to get into the wings to see what was going to unfold.

I managed to get there just as the Mouse King began his war with the Toy Soldiers.

Joe was one of those dancers that was very smart and had clearly thought this through. He had also practiced the steps he would do and had engaged his male cohorts into the scheme.

First, they had all gotten rubber balloons of different colors and had put them on the end of the noses of the individual mouse heads.
So, each mouse had a different colored nose.
That alone was hysterical! But Joe was not done. That was just the beginning.

One mouse was drunk and carrying a bottle. Another mouse was in abject fear and freaking out as he was running around.

Joe had taken his choreography and decided to put in the major moments of other ballets into his battle scene.
He brought into the fight scene … the competition of Graduation Ball where the dancers compete with each other doing difficult pirouettes.
Just so you understand … he was doing fouettés with a King Mouse costume on and the paper-mache head that is not secured. It is just mostly sitting on top of the head. He had to hold his mouse head, so it did not spin off while he was turning.
That made the feat even more amazing because doing fouettés is hard enough but then he could not use his arms to help him turn, it was much more difficult.

During the dying scene of the Mouse King, he did the choreography of Giselle’s death scene first. Then for effect he threw in the death moment of the Dying Swan before he fell to the ground

His choreography was a mix of all the great ballets and was perfectly put to the music. He had to do it in a way that he did not run into the children dancing around as the soldiers … or get in the way of what they were supposed to be doing.

Most of the kids were so focused on what they were supposed to do that they did not notice what the Mice were doing. But there were a few that looked confused at what was happening, while trying to not laugh or make a mistake. I saw toy soldiers marching off stage, looking backwards with their mouths open. I have to commend the kids. They did an excellent job maintaining their personal soldier discipline while chaos insued.

At the end, when the Mouse King dies, he had red paper ribbons up his sleeve, so that when the sword of the Nutcracker came out of his side, he began pulling the ribbons out like a magician for fake blood and draping it all over his body and making a puddle of bloody paper ribbons on the floor. At which all the Mice went overboard into the drama of the death of their king, pulling the balloons off their noses and bringing out big white handkerchiefs to cry on.
It was fabulous and hysterical!

As the scene shifts into the Snow scene, even the Clara (on stage) is laughing and fighting back tears.

The Nutcracker was even enrolled to act shocked and surprised at all the fake blood and tried to pretend to wipe the messy blood off his hands and costume.

And then we were onto the snow scene.

Sondra Sugai, (the rehearsal directress) was not thrilled about it and evidently came backstage, scowling. Joe was ready for her. While I don’t know what was said, I was watching in the wings as he was clearly explaining that he did not disrupt the Toy Soldiers too badly and that it was a Christmas Eve program and that it was fun to do something different.

What was funny was that … over time, some elements of his performance were integrated into the real show. Not those things that were blatantly obvious … but some of his effects worked and were the perfect comic relief for children in the audience that could have felt traumatized by the death of the Mouse King.
I will always remember that moment. The memory of it makes me smile and that is why I say that all ballet companies are one giant dysfunctional but artistically brilliant family.

~Suzanne Wagner~


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