Dale Lam didn't want to do another one. She wanted to present audiences something different.
"I didn't want to do 'The Nutcracker,'" said Lam, the artistic director of the Columbia City Jazz Dance Company.
"There are too many 'Nutcrackers' already."
Local dancegoers might agree. So for the second consecutive year, Lam will present "The Two Claras," a contemporary re-imagining of "The Nutcracker."
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"The Two Claras" - one black, the other white - is an immediate departure from the traditional storyline. So is the production's soundtrack, which features doo-wop and big band versions of Christmas songs, as well as tunes by Sufjan Stevens.
Kidz Bop star Dana Vaughns, a hip-hop dancer, will perform as the Nutcracker.
And, oh yeah, film actress Andie MacDowell will narrate the performances.
But there's more.
At a rehearsal Sunday at the company's space on Rivermont Drive, dancers of various ages went through their routines.
"It's not a dance company; it's a family," Lam said as she gathered "the little ones" into place for a dance with lollipops.
The performance this weekend will be a family affair for the company, as in the dances you'll see won't all be choreographed by Lam.
Lauren Alston, an 18-year-old senior at Lower Richland High School, has choreographed several pieces, including the standout "Sugar Plum Scary."
"It's an amazing piece," Lam said. "I let her do it completely by herself and it was brilliant."
Not many artistic directors would hand the keys to a major performance to an apprentice.
"A lot of choreographers that are in my position in this town are too paranoid of allowing other gifted people that are surrounding them to be given any credit," Lam said. "That's pride and I don't believe in that.
"As a choreographer but also a teacher, you nurture talent. You don't stifle the talent by making sure no one sees that there's potential within your own group."
Joshua Alexander, a junior at Dreher High School, has a stirring dance choreographed by Lam to an acoustic version of "The First Noel." As Alexander spun during rehearsal, one noticed how his body seemed to elongate.
"My movement is more organic," Lam said. "I like to think of it as the water and the wind. Very fluid."
The only light in the space for much of the rehearsal was provided by Christmas bulbs strung along the brick walls. It looked not unlike a high school gymnasium being set up for a school dance.
The lighting is essential in learning the syncopation and multiple melodies in the music.
"I want them to listen," Lam said. "To get students to understand that kind of musicalilty, a lot of times I turn off the lights so they can't use their eyes. They have to use their ears."
Audience members will hear MacDowell, star of films such as "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Multiplicity" and "Groundhog Day," as she walks "The Two Claras" through the years. The two Claras age three times and are played by six dancers.
MacDowell narrated one performance last year, but she'll read for the entire production this year.
"It'll be an experience," MacDowell said earlier this month before a workout at Gyrotonic Vista. "It will be a great memory for me as well to get to do this with my daughter."
Her daughter, Sarah Margaret Qualley, will perform as Winter Barbie in the production. Her solo to "Winter Song" is lyrical and her lines are impressively clean. Sarah Margaret, 15, is a choreography apprentice, and she frequently makes the trip from her home in Asheville, N.C., to work with Lam.
Lam, MacDowell said, offers something other instructors don't.
"I think Dale has the best musicality," MacDowell said. For "my daughter, technique is very, very important to her because she wants to be a contemporary ballerina. And she knows she has to study technique.
"But if you can't hear the music, you're really not fun to watch. Then you're just moving through the piece."
That's why the lights were off in the studio.
"You can have all the technique in the world, but if you don't become the music, it's not interesting," MacDowell said.
Others have noticed Lam's musicality. Bonnie Boiter-Jolley, a USC dance student who will play one of the adult Claras, stretched as she waited her turn to rehearse.
"She works the kids so hard, and they just love her," Boiter-Jolley said of Lam. "I thought it would be cool to try something new."
That sound's like Lam's feelings about "The Nutcracker."
"I like surprise," Lam said. "I'm so tired of predictability."
IF YOU GO
"The Two Claras"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. A shortened version will be performed at 11 a.m. Friday.
WHERE: Drayton Hall Theatre, 1214 College St.
TICKETS: $15. $4 for the short version
INFORMATION: http://www.columbiacityjazz.com or (803) 252-0252
RECEPTION: There will be a reception at 6:30 p.m. Saturday with MacDowell, and reserved seats cost $50.