Arts and Culture

This is a “s’morigin story,” a dance work of how the gooey treat came to be. 

“It started as a bit of a joke, as many of our ideas do,” said Amberly M. Simpson, artistic director of Ambo Dance Theatre in Louisville. 

In the summer of 2020, Simpson was riding in the car with two other dancers, which included her partner Joseph R. Brandt, when Brandt jokingly said: “Hey, a modern dance parody of ‘The Nutcracker’ could be ‘The Graham Cracker’ harkening back to Martha Graham.”

Martha Graham, a legend of American modern dance, would stay a deep-cut inside joke for Ambo Dance Theatre’s first full-length production. And rather, Simpson would take a more literal approach to the company’s spin on the holiday dance staple. 

Ambo Dance Theatre artistic director Amberly M. Simpson runs a rehearsal of "The Graham Cracker" on Nov. 28, 2021.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Ambo Dance Theatre artistic director Amberly M. Simpson runs a rehearsal of “The Graham Cracker” on Nov. 28, 2021.

She began to think about what the story of a graham cracker, as in the sweet snack, could be within the narrative of “The Nutcracker,” a ballet about a young girl who is gifted a nutcracker from a mysterious man known to her family as Uncle Drosselmeyer. In her dreams, the nutcracker comes to life and they travel through magical realms.

“And out of that emerged, a love story between Chocolate and Marshmallow, where Graham Cracker [is] sort of their hero character, and Clara’s kind of just a friend and an ally along for the ride,” Simpson said.

The Graham Cracker: a Nutcracker Parody” runs at Highland Community Ministries Dec. 3 and 4. 

Marshmallow Warriors Evie Feldkamp, in the foreground, and Kyli Bell, in the background, rehearse "The Graham Cracker" at Ambo Dance Theatre's Louisville studio on Nov. 28, 2021.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Marshmallow Warriors Evie Feldkamp, in the foreground, and Kyli Bell, in the background, rehearse “The Graham Cracker” at Ambo Dance Theatre’s Louisville studio on Nov. 28, 2021.

In this version, Clara tries to get her hands on a coveted s’more during a holiday bonfire. She successfully sneaks one away, soon slipping into a sugar-induced hallucination, where the love between chocolate and marshmallow is forbidden, for their clans have been enemies for years.

“It’s kind of like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ where they’ve been feuding for so long all they know is that they don’t like each other,” Simpson said.

Chocolate and Marshmallow (The Lovers): dancer Rylan Truman lifts MAC during a rehearsal of "The Graham Cracker."Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Chocolate and Marshmallow (The Lovers): dancer Rylan Truman lifts MAC during a rehearsal of “The Graham Cracker.”

But love conquers, at least initially.

And similar to the more typical take on “The Nutcracker,” Chocolate and Marshmallow, along with Graham Cracker and Clara, visit a snowy wonderland and then the Land of the Sweets, the traditional second Act that includes waltzing flowers and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But Simpson has re-envisioned this saccharine world, filling the Sugar Plum Fairy’s court with suspender-wearing Nerds candies, tap-dancing Pop Rocks, chirping Peeps, a Jelly Belly dancer and taffy, who all celebrate the union of Chocolate and Marshmallow.

Jennifer Shelton rehearses the Jelly Belly dance in Ambo Dance Theatre's "The Graham Cracker."Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Jennifer Shelton rehearses the Jelly Belly dance in Ambo Dance Theatre’s “The Graham Cracker.”

Candace Kresse, Madalyn Durst, and Rachel Bucio Grote as the Peeps in Ambo Dance Theatre's "The Graham Cracker." Artistic director Amberly M. Simpson said she wanted to "get away" from some of the Land of the Sweets dances that perpetuate stereotypes about different cultures.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Candace Kresse, Madalyn Durst, and Rachel Bucio Grote as the Peeps in Ambo Dance Theatre’s “The Graham Cracker.” Artistic director Amberly M. Simpson said she wanted to “get away” from some of the Land of the Sweets dances that perpetuate stereotypes about different cultures.

While the whole thing is supposed to be a bit silly, Simpson said it’s also crafted to uplift LGBTQ stories and art forms: The star-crossed lovers are performed by a femme-identifying dancer and a non-binary dancer; the candies aren’t gendered; and a Louisville drag star performs the Sugar Plum Fairy. 

“So many people in our company, myself included, identify as being somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum that to put on like a traditional, like heteronormative, gendered casting version of the show, just doesn’t feel authentic to who we are and the population of people who are participating and helping to build this show,” Simpson said.

It was also important to show these LGBTQ stories as joyful.

“I find just that a lot of queer stories get featured really only in the context of their trauma that society’s kind of imposed on them… It can just be, hey this is a fun story in a fantasy land, where this can exist,” she said.

Simpson expects “The Graham Cracker,” just like “The Nutcracker,” to become a holiday tradition.

Uhstel H. Valentine as the Sugar Plum Fairy during a rehearsal of Ambo Dance Theatre's "The Graham Cracker" on Nov. 28, 2021.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Uhstel H. Valentine as the Sugar Plum Fairy during a rehearsal of Ambo Dance Theatre’s “The Graham Cracker” on Nov. 28, 2021.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.