It was the very first theater production I attended in Santa Cruz, and as I sat in the darkness, my eyes transfixed by a flurry of shapes and colors on stage, I wondered to myself: “Am I on drugs?”
Let the record state that I was, in fact, not on drugs, and the sensory overload I was experiencing was rather a Nutcracker remix of fantastic proportions: Tandy Beal’s ‘Nutz Re-Mixed: Mixed Nutz,’ which returns to UCSC on Nov. 20.
“How do you develop a sense of wonder in a jaded world?” Mixed Nutz creator Beal asks, leaning so far across the table between us that I think I can spot a tiny golden fleck in her right eye. “Circus is a very fast way for adults to drop their judgment, or their sarcasm—whatever the things are that hold them back.”
The sleeves of her long tweed coat billowing and her feet dancing under the table (or at least, I imagine they’re dancing) in bright red leather booties, Beal radiates an infectious energy and a lightness in viewing the world: “I want to bring the joy in without it being saccharine, the wonder in full tilt and the essence of well-being. I want people to walk out of there going ‘Wow, I feel good about being on the planet!”
Mixed Nutz is Santa Cruz born and bred, and many of its reinterpretations (which take the stage “when the opportunity arises,” due to Santa Cruz’s limited venues) are thanks to a long-standing partnership with local talent and the UCSC theater arts department, says Beal. Students gain the opportunity to work side by side with professional performers like this year’s Wang Hong, a gold medalist at the Festival Mondial Du Cirque de Demain who toured with the Cirque du Soleil company, and male contortionist Fleeky Flanco, who doubles as a hand-balancer—a rare dichotomy, says Beal, because both feats demand very different muscular patterns.
“It helps deepen a student’s perception about what the arts are about and it lets the artists be part of the village that raises the next generation,” says Beal.
Performers who started out in the show as children now step out in leading roles, and this year folklorico groups Corazon en Flor and Los Mejicas return with local juggling queen Iman Lizarazu.
The idea for Mixed Nutz was born in the late ’70s when Beal’s partner, Jon Scoville, suggested that she use her creative choreographic background to transform Tchaikovsky’s music into a revamped, festive Nutcracker.
“I went ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea,’” recounts Beal, recreating the eye-roll that likely accompanied her initial reaction.
Four years of fundraising later, Beal put on the first show, with her father, actor John Beal, as the original Herr Drosselmeyer. She created it mostly from scratch, fashioning the storyline from Tchaikovsky’s musical cues rather than the original story, which she hadn’t seen since childhood. Dance Magazine heralded it as the first contemporary take on the classic ballet, and after “running away” to join the Pickle Family Circus, as she puts it, Beal commissioned Bay Area a capella group SoVoSó to rescore the music for live performance.
Beal is known locally and internationally for her collaborations with Bobby McFerrin and Frank Zappa, heading both Moscow Circus and Pickle Family Circus, and for choreographing Tim Burton’s iconic The Nightmare Before Christmas. This year marks 40 years of her company, Tandy Beal & Company.
Every season that it’s performed, Mixed Nutz evolves, says Beal. This year’s show features Fred Astaire-era waltzes alongside hip-hop numbers, in between the acrobats on cyr wheels, circus performers balancing parasols on their feet, and dancers leaping into somersaults—all heightened by award-winning designer Beaver Bauer’s brilliant costumes.
“It goes beyond ‘this is an art thing’ and ‘we’re all getting our art ya-yas out,’” says Beal. “It’s fun, but I’m interested in deeper—this interconnectivity with the community, the cultures and various styles are inviting us all to stretch.”
And at its core, it’s about spreading the holiday spirit—which to Beal is, above all, that sense of wonder.
“It’s very difficult to live as an artist in this town. There’s not a lot of opportunity and the rents are really high, so everybody’s working a million jobs, but when they come together and can experience their own lightness, it’s exponential,” says Beal, emphasising the “t” in lightness. “It’s very hard work for me to do this, and it’s worth it when I can put my hand into this joy socket and the joy juice comes out like errrr, like electricity.”
Info: Nov. 20-Dec. 6, Mainstage Theater, Theater Arts Center, UCSC, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. arts.ucsc.edu.