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'Nutcracker Suite & Spicy' At Atheneum Owes Its Magic To An Angel

"Nutcracker Suite & Spicy," a modern-day adaptation of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet, will give its seventh annual presentation Dec. 9 to 11 in Hartford. But it never would have made it past its first year in 2009 if not for a mysterious occurrence that Carolyn Paine, who created the event, referred to as "Christmas magic."

"We had 48 hours to go before the first performance," says Paine. It was an organizational disaster — "we were still choreographing at the dress rehearsal" — and Paine desperately needed a production assistant to run various errands.

Then a man walked in the door of the rehearsal space. "He gave me his resume. He said he heard we needed help," she says. "I told him, I can't pay you much, just about $200."

He accepted and pulled everything into line. The production moved smoothly after that. The show went on. It was a hit. Paine gave her rescuer a check for $200. He left. She never saw or heard from him again.

"The check was never cashed. Nobody could find his resume. His name was Angel," she says. "It was so weird. But it gave me the sense, 'We're going to get through this, this is something special'."

"Nutcracker Suite & Spicy" is certainly different, a jazzy variation in the midst of a season full of traditional "Nutcrackers." The two-act, full-length production takes the classical story and updates it, with adaptations of the legendary tunes by Duke Ellington and in rock and big-band styles, and using Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Mad Russian Christmas" in the finale.

The opening party scene is reimagined as a drunken and rowdy "ugly sweater party," where Clara gets hit in the head and wakes up with a prince by her side. The Land of the Sweets is turned into a nightclub, with characters costumes named after mixed drinks. The queen of them all is the Sugar Rum Cherry. The soldiers tap dance, accompanied by a tutu-wearing labradoodle named Lucie.

"She hops in time with the music, but every so often she decides she's not into it and stops," Paine says.

Paine has a long history with "The Nutcracker." She performed in her first when she was 6, playing a baby mouse with the Boston Ballet, where she was a student.

"My parents even got engaged at Boston Ballet's 'Nutcracker' and seven years later I was performing in it," she says.

She also has danced "Nutcrackers" with Ballet Rox in Boston and Ballet Theater in West Hartford. "Suite & Spicy" is produced by her company, CONNetic Dance.

"It's a great holiday classic, but everybody needs a reboot," she says. "The dance climate has changed a lot because of a lot of TV shows, like 'So You Think You Can Dance.' There's more broad exposure to dance, contemporary, hip-hop, everything. People understand dance styles fused together."

Other Nontraditional 'Nutcrackers'

Two other Connecticut ballet companies offer nontraditional twists on the holiday favorite ballet.

"Nutcracker Spectacular," performed by Mystic Ballet, gives Clara's story a time-travel twist. It will be performed Dec. 3, 10 and 17 at 1 and 4 p.m. and Dec. 4, 11 and 18 at 1 p.m. at 325 Mistuxet Ave. in Stonington. Admission is $32 to $48. mysticballet.org.

At Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford, "Hip Hop Nutcracker" will be performed Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. Choreographed by Jennifer Weber of the Brooklyn hip-hop Decadancetheatre, the show is set in modern-day New York and has music remixed by DJ Boo. MC Kurtis Blow and an electric violin provide the music. Admission is $19.50, $29.50, $42.50 and $69.50. bushnell.org.

NUTCRACKER SUITE & SPICY is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, Dec. 9 to 10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 11, at 2 p.m. Admission is $30. An opening-night red-carpet party at Peppercorns Grill is $45, which includes admission to the show. thewadsworth.org.

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