Save Tchaikovsky’s brilliant original score there was little choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s psychological ballet Black Swan White Swan (retitled Black & White: Swan Lake for 2017) had in common with traditional productions of Swan Lake. No feather-adorned tutus, no clack of pointe shoes hitting the stage floor and no love story of prince and a beautiful swan that transcends death. His contemporary version of the Marius Petipa classic instead had its dancers in modern-day costume, often barefoot, and told the story of a self-absorbed man who, faced with his own mortality, sought refuge in romantic relationships with two very different women only to be tormented by feelings of guilt and betrayal over his infidelities with them.
The world premiere of the black-and-white themed two-act ballet by Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre began with a darkened stage on which the moving image of the surface of a shimmering lake was projected. The lake’s waters gradually became more turbulent as apparition-like circles of white light rose from its depths.
The mesmerizing scene then shifted to two others that served as setup for the ballet’s storyline and where we were introduced to its main characters.
In the first, a brief encounter between Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried and Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan (she looking more like a secretary than a swan) left the impression that Siegfried was in poor health as he collapsed to the floor (repeating the gesture at intervals throughout the first act) and that whatever ailed him, as well as his inner demons, were being manifested in the form of the sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Dancer Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida was riveting in his portrayal of the clingy, jealous and sinister Von Rothbart who seemed to have an equal measure of aggression and desire for Siegfried. His dancing was a potent blend of skill and power.
The second found Siegfried at a dance party where he encountered Black Swan, Dawnell Dryja. Radacovsky’s contemporary dance choreography for the scene had its five couples rocking back and forth in each other’s arms in a slow dance then picking up the pace to a comedic level while the Black Swan fawned over a now-melancholy Siegfried while Von Rothbart inserted himself between the pair, grabbing at Siegfried or climbing onto his back.
Apart from the ballet’s leads, GRB’s dancers appeared at times uneasy in Radacovsky’s gesture-laden contemporary movement language; their dancing lacked energy and crispness.
Toward the end of the first act however, the ballet and the dancers’ performances seemed to come into their own thanks to a striking dreamlike scene where a corps of fourteen swans, barefoot and in white leotards, performed choreography that blended references to Petipa’s production with twisty, off-balance movement. The swans each danced in individual spotlights atop the shimmering lake projection that harked back to the ballet’s beginning and brought home the notion that the swans were in fact the apparition-like lights that rose from the lake’s depths. Backed by a wall of mirrored panels that multiplied the number of Swans, Siegfried and Von Rothbart slowly stalked each other as the swans danced, creating a marvelous juxtaposition of growing tension and animated beauty.
A lightning-quick dance of the four cygnets and a playful and acrobatic pas de deux between Siegfried and the White Swan followed to end the act. McQueen Schultz as the White Swan was radiant and her performance in the pas deft.
The ballet’s second act saw Radacovsky’s choreography abandon its sometimes cutesy elements in favor of rich, emotional and more technically challenging movement. It opened with Siegfried and Von Rothbart in another battle of wills in which both dancers shone.
The ballet then climaxed in the Black Swan pas de deux where a seductive and fierce Dryja partnered by Schultz wowed the audience. Darting legs, sharp turns and daring lifts were thoroughly enthralling.
The rest of the ballet saw Siegfried seemingly defeat Von Rothbart only to have him return when the White and Black Swans met each other and exposed Siegfried’s infidelities. The ballet ended with Siegfried and Von Rothbart lying lifeless on the stage as the projected image of a swan in flight surrounded them and GRB’s swan corps slowly flapped their arms to Tchaikovsky’s stirring music.
Perhaps not a production for the ballet purist and in some ways a flawed one, Radacovsky’s ballet was nonetheless a triumph. For GRB, now in its 40thseason and the second under new artistic director and former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina, Patricia Barker, Black Swan White Swan was bold and successful step in the new direction Barker is taking the company from a little-known regional ballet company to one in the national spotlight.
Want to stay fit as a fiddle? Attila Mosolygo is already a pro in the ballet world, as well as the assistant artistic director and principal of Grand Rapids Ballet School. But did you know he’s also got some mad skills in the gym? Dancing already burns tons of calories and the sporadic movements call upon many muscles. Many people envy the physique but don’t actually realize they can get a similar shape. Check out how he trains for performances and implement some of his moves into your regimen.
Exercise 1: Basic Pushup
Keep you back flat, legs straight, and hands placed outside of your shoulders. 3 SETS OF 20 REPS 30-60 SECONDS REST
Exercise 2: Military Pushup
Push up with the hands placed directly under shoulders, upper arms remain next to the body in the down position. 3 SETS OF 20 REPS 30-60 SECONDS REST
Exercise 3: Crunches
On a flat back with legs at 90 degrees and toes pointing up, keep your arms vertical with your fingers above your shoulders. This is a basic crunch with fingers extending up to the same level as the toes. 3 SETS OF 30 REPS 30-60 SECONDS REST
Exercise 4: Starfish
In a basic pushup position create a wide X shape without twisting or tipping the torso. Raise one arm, hold it for 5-10 seconds, place it down, then do the same with opposite arm. And the with legs (one at a time) 2 SETS OF 20 REPS
“Follow exercise #4 with a moderate speed run for 1 mile and then repeat exercises 1-4”
And don’t forget we also offer adult ballet classes that will help you stay fit, increase flexibility, and raise your spirits. Find out more here.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Black & White: Swan Lake” returns to the stage at Peter Martin Wege Theater February 10-12, 2017. Here’s the MLive review of the premiere that was originally published in May of 2012…
Laura and Nicholas Schultz as Odette and Siegfried in the Grand Rapids Ballet’s premier of “Black Swan White Swan,” a variation of the classic ballet “Swan Lake.” (Chris Clark | Mlive.com)
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk for MLive.com (May 11, 2012)
4 stars of 4
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Great art is great, in part, because, whether it’s Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven’s symphonies, it can be created new again.
Natalie Portman, in the film “Black Swan,” is set against rehearsals for “Swan Lake.” Music from Tchaikovsky’s score is part of the 2010 film, but the tale of Von Rothbart, the sorcerer, is not told in Darren Aronofsky’s film.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s new production of “Black & White: Swan Lake” re-imagines it yet again to cap the company’s 40th anniversary season with an artistic accomplishment of the highest order. Startling special effects surround amazing choreography in the show.
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s new production – beguiling, captivating, ultimately enigmatic — is not a retelling of the story of Princess Odette, the White Swan; or of Von Rothburt’s daughter, Odile, the Black Swan.
GRBC’s production, which opened last weekend in its Wege Theatre, is the story of Siegfried and his journey of discovery, both in the real world as well as in the realm of his imagination, aided, abetted by Von Rothbart.
The most important duets, in fact, are those between Siegfried and Von Rothbart, as his Mephistophelean manipulator, and by Von Rothbart, as Siegfried looking inside himself, at his alter ego, mirroring his actions, sharing his coats, engaging in frequent combat.
Radacovsky’s tale is one for the 21st century, with a dance vocabulary to match. It’s classical dance, yes, but not at all classical ballet with women on pointe. Dancers all were in dance shoes or barefoot.
Manipulations of the spine, legs spread far apart, toes pointing at 90 degree angles to the leg were some of the unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable moves Radacovsky employed, to say nothing of any number of gestures to suggest swans in motion.
Four strong dancers, with strong characterizations to match, tell the 80-minute story to most of Tchaikovsky’s much loved, pre-recorded score to “Swan Lake.”
Friday’s cast, to open its second weekend of three performances, included Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida as von Rothbart, Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan, Dawnell Dryja as the Black Swan.
Schultz, a fine leading man, has developed the tools to grow a character in the short space of a show as well as the strength and stamina to partner so many people so much of the time.
Yoshida, an exciting dancer always, gave Von Rothbart a cunning, commanding presence, with some spectacular moves, but riveting even when he moved with catlike stealth.
McQueen Schultz danced a graceful, White Swan, partnered often off the floor, frequently in surprising lifts and carries, suggesting her sad, remote distance.
Dryja, as the Black Swan, was a sexy, magnetic personality with a touch of femme fatale. Her solo variation had energy crackling at the tips of her fingers and toes. The trust between her and Schultz when paired together is unmatched.
Radacovsky’s party scene, establishing the normalcy of Siegfried’s world, was witty and gay with five couples dancing the world’s oldest game.
No fewer than 14 swans, matching white outfits with loose, flowing hair, were a strong corps de ballet with willowy gestures often in perfect unison.
As Shakespeare’s plays profit from modern lighting and Beethoven’s piano concertos feature modern instruments, Radacovsky’s 21st century version of a 19th century ballet benefited greatly from set and lighting design by Marek Holly and projection design by Michael Auer.
Mirrored drops reflected the action and provide subtle entrances and exits. Pools of light served as accent lighting as well as destinations marking turning points in the tale.
Best of all were breathtaking projections transforming the Wege Theatre into the semblance of a lake itself. A surprising special effect at the end sealed the deal.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s 40th season ends on a high note, though two more chances remain to see “Black Swan White Swan.”
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Grand Rapids Ballethas spent years of dreaming of a new production of “The Nutcracker.”
Years of planning and designing, and months of choreographing and rehearsing its new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” culminated on Friday in DeVos Performance Hall.
It’s simply divine, delicious and delightful.
“The Nutcracker,” conducted by John Varineau, leading the Grand Rapids Symphony, opened to enthusiastic audience acclaim as Grand Rapids Ballet’s first, brand-new production of the holiday ballet in some 30 years.
Tchaikovsky’s beloved score is the same as before. The tale of Clara and her magical nutcracker doll come to life is mostly so as well. After that, everything’s new.
Settings by Chris Van Allsburg and Eugene Lee provide the authenticity of the Stahlbaum home down to shadow silhouette portraits over the fireplace mantle that set the scene in early 19th century Vienna. The meticulously painted drops also supply the whimsy of the imaginary Marzipan Castle in the second act, which Clara and her Prince reach by traveling on a boat pulled by dolphins.
Sumptuous costumes designed by artistic director Patricia Barker reflect the handsome, cutaway jackets and empire waist gowns of Regency Era. Clara’s godfather, the eccentric Drosselmeier, naturally, is something of a throwback in an old-fashioned, 18th century long coat and knee breeches.
Lights, projections and special effects add a touch of 21st century magic to supply falling snow, fireworks and scampering mice. As Clara falls asleep on Christmas Eve, her mesmerizing transformation into a tiny figure, coming face to face with now-gigantic mice beneath the Christmas tree, is a wondrous delight you have to see yourself.
Yet glitz, glamour and production values aside, the essence of the show is new choreography by Val Caniparoli, one of the best-known and best-traveled American choreographers working today.
Caniparoli’s “Nutcracker” is classical ballet at its best. Graceful and elegant, understated at times, Caniparoli fills the stage with deceptively simple yet highly technical ballet steps. Frequently his choreography flows as if the dancers were on ice skates instead of toe shoes. But the sheer athleticism of his lifts and carries cannot be dismissed.
The Stahlbaum’s Christmas party in full flow tells the tale of adults conversing and sharing social dances, children playing with drums and dolls, causing an occasional ruckus until distracted by Drosselmeier’s life-size Sugar Plum and Nutcracker dolls, both of which arrive in delightfully deceptive ways.
The battle scene between the Nutcracker and Mouse King was depicted dramatically with music to match and made a seamless transition into the ravishing Snow scene.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s two most veteran members, Stephen Sanford and Dawnell Dryja danced Friday as the Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy. Yet the two don’t dance the grand pas de deux in Act II.
Among the many changes in the re-imagined “Nutcracker, the young Clara, portrayed by Julia Rudlaff in Act I, becomes a slumbering Clara who dreams of herself as a young adult, danced by Yuka Oba.
Dream Clara dances the grand pas de deux because, after all, a girl who dreams of a handsome prince doesn’t sit back and watch some other girl dance with him.
Enraptured by the wonder of her journey Oba blossomed on stage, partnered confidently by Sanford. The Snow scene was unabashedly romantic, danced with the enthusiasm of newly discovered passion between two young lovers. Building upon that foundation, their grand pas de deux in Act II brought forth even greater technical accomplishments.
Dryja, leading 12 little fairies, was radiant in her solo with dainty feet and captivating presence that filled the stage even when dancing alone.
Grand Rapids Ballet last year launched a $2.5 million capital campaign to retire debts, build and endowment, and create a new production of “Nutcracker.” Realizing that vision led the company to expand by one-third this season. No fewer than 32 dancers are on the roster. Thirteen are newcomers this season.
The payoff in the Snow scene and in the “Waltz of the Flowers” was extraordinary with a corps de ballet of 16 snowflakes and 12 flowers, all professionals, apprentices, trainees or guests, who danced with nimble assurance and supple cohesion.
The Arabian Spice divertissement, with Ednis Gomez as a snake charmer and Monica Pelfrey as an asp, was sinewy and sensuous. Kyohei Yoshida’s spellbinding spins in the Chinese Tea divertissement, pursued by a new Chinese dragon, were electrifying.
Therese Davis, Connie Flachs and Laura McQueen Schultz danced with polished poise in the French Pastilles variation. The Russian Caviar divertissement had Isaac Aoki, Steven Houser and Nicholas Schultz exploding across the stage with powerful leaps as the audience clapped along to the Trepak rhythm.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s new production, as likely as not, will have its naysayers.
A prologue that has Drosselmeier, portrayed magnetically by Attila Mosolygo, planning Christmas surprises for his godchildren, as well as an epilogue that returns Clara to her home, safe and sound, are entirely new to DeVos Hall.
The enormous Mother Ginger is no more, though her masked Harlequin children still appear in the show. Overall, there are fewer students and children on stage.
But the new version of “The Nutcracker,” which the company plans to tour in future years, surely will elevate Grand Rapids Ballet’s reputation as a professional troupe of consequence while entertaining a new generation at the holidays with the magic of dance.
All in the Family: ‘Nutcracker’ includes sibling youth dancers from Kentwood
By K.D. Norris (email@example.com)
When the annual run of the Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” hits the stage Friday, Dec. 9, it will include staring rolls by the company’s professional dancers and, as always, often a stage full of youth dancers.
Again this year, Kentwood sisters Grace and Micah Jones will be among those lending their talents to the production a part of the ballet’s youth dance program — one sister because she sees dance as a possible future career and the other because it is just “so much fun.”
The classic family holiday tradition returns to DeVos Performance Hall for two weekends — Dec. 9-11 and Dec. 16-18 — with four evening shows and four matinees. Live orchestra music is provided by Grand Rapids Symphony.
Grace, a 16-year-old junior at Grand River Preparatory High School, has been dancing at Grand Rapids Ballet for 11 years and has been a member of the Junior Company since its inception. This year will be her 8th Nutcracker appearance.
“I started dancing when I was 2, my parents saw that I loved movement and loved dancing,” Grace said last week, prior to a rehearsal. “My parents saw I needed something to get my energy out so they said ‘Let’s put her into dance.’ I really didn’t get into ballet right away. I was into jazz and tap and hip hop, but at about 5, I went into ballet because I loved the movement.”
She also loved The Nutcracker, thanks to her father, Ronald.
“I remember going to The Nutcracker every year, when I was younger,” she said. “My dad would take me every year, starting at 4 and then every year until I was 8, when I got to be in it for the first time.”
Seven productions later, she is still excited about the annual holiday production.
“I have always loved being in front of the audience,” Grace said. “I love sharing, I love exposing the audience to something new. For me, when I first watched it, it was so beautiful, to watch those beautiful dancers, the beautiful colors and costumes and shapes they make on the stage. I said ‘Wow. I want to do that.’ … Now I want to give some other girl that feeling, the feeling I felt when I was younger.”
According to her mother, Sandra, Grace hopes to dance in college while pursuing professional opportunities. But she sees dance as a means to other career paths as well.
“I love teaching, maybe teaching dance, “ Grace said. “I would love to show others the joy I found in dance.”
One of the people she has shown the love of dance to is her sister.
Micah, age 13 and a 7th grader at Cross Creek Charter Academy, says music is her first love — she has been playing the piano for 8 years, and her mother says she has talked about assisting with her college expenses by playing piano for ballet companies.
But Micah has been with working with the Grand Rapids Ballet youth program for four years and will be in the Nutcracker for the third year.
“I saw saw my sister, and other people, in dance and it looked so fun,” Micah said, explaining why she wanted to dance. “It is so free, you get to move how you want to move.”
She also said she receives plenty of advice and encouragement from her older sister.
“Since she is such a good dancer, she really helps me when I need help, with technique or how I am supposed to move,” Micah said.
And as far as her first time in front of the usually large crowds watching the Nutcracker, any advice from her older sister?
“She told me not to think of the crowd, just remember your choreography, remember what you are there to do.”
While the two sisters will be dancing different rolls this season, the thing they have in common is an affinity for the famous battle scene. “It is a giant battle scene,” Grace points out, while Micah simply says the scene is “so much fun.”
Anybody who has seen the production knows what they are talking about; those how haven’t have two weekends worth of opportunity.
For more information, call 616-454-4771 or visit grballet.com
A Grand Rapids Ballet dancer tells the tale of how The Nutcracker comes to life.
As the air gets cooler and twinkling lights emerge to illuminate the city, ballet dancers across the country prepare themselves to audition for one of the most beloved ballets of the holiday season. The Nutcracker is performed at almost every ballet company in the country, and the Grand Rapids Ballet is, once again, bringing this classic tale to the stage at DeVos Performance Hall throughout December.
Seeing The Nutcracker during the holiday season brings many enjoyments for audience members: It serves as a family-friendly night out with a timeless story performed in marveling movements, a celebration of the holiday spirit and a chance to lose oneself in the beauty and nostalgia of the production. We are joined by the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the unforgettable score with incredible talent, giving you the opportunity to experience two of Grand Rapids’ best performers for the price of one ticket.
If you manage to pull your eyes away from the grace and finesse of the awe-inspiring choreography by Val Caniparoli, you will also notice the stupendous stagecraft of GR Ballet’s production. Conceived in 2014 through a collaboration with Patricia Barker (GR Ballet’s artistic director), Chris Van Allsburg (Grand Rapids native and author of The Polar Express), Eugene Lee (award-winning set designer of Candide, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Wicked), the production value rivals that of Broadway shows.
Even more important than the re-imagined set design and the mesmerizing dancers is that GR Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker manifests from the city and people of Grand Rapids; the talent you see onstage lives, works and plays within our city. The dancers you see may pass you later in the grocery store and your child may take ballet class from the ballerina doll or learn how to do a pirouette from the Mouse King. There are many companies performing beautiful productions of The Nutcracker throughout America, but GR Ballet is West Michigan’s home team.
Nick Schultz (Nutcracker Prince) and Yuka Oba (Clara)
Dive into the full experience of a night at the theater by dressing up in your favorite holiday attire, taking a photo in the lobby with the Nutcracker himself, bringing your glasses or binoculars to see the dancers’ expressions up close, and hanging out after the show by the stage door to catch an autograph from Young Clara or The Nutcracker Prince.
You can buy tickets for this unique holiday performance by calling (616) 454-4771 or visiting GRBallet.com.
What: Grand Rapids Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker Where: DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW When: December 9-11 & 16-18 (showtimes at GRBallet.com) Tickets: Starting at $34
In 2014, locals were delighted to witness the stage debut of a new re-imagined ballet production of “The Nutcracker.”
For this new version of this popular Christmas production, Grand Rapids Ballet tapped the enormous talents of former Grand Rapidian and illustrator/author Chris Van Allsburg (“The Polar Express,” “Jumanji”), the Tony Award-winning set designer Eugene Lee (“Wicked,” “Sweeney Todd”) and choreographer Val Caniparoli (San Francisco Ballet), who, through their combined inventiveness, would bring to birth locally a brand new holiday classic.
And while we are all familiar with the dance of the sugar plum fairies, mice that duel and battle with a precision only a dancer could deliver, and, of course, the storybook thrill of the heroic toy soldiers all combined make this enchanting fable one that should not be missed, regardless of where you fall on the kid scale these days.
The magic of the night’s success is brought to life through the dancers who keep the audience spellbound as they perform to music of our Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony.
And, as an added bonus on the third year of this new production, the Grand Rapids Ballet’s dancers
and company invite guests to purchase tickets for the AfterGlow event immediately taking place following the opening night’s performance at the equally theatrically designed Pantlind Ballroom at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
The cost to attend this special opening night party is $45 per person. Each AfterGlow purchased ticket includes delicious appetizers, desserts, two complimentary drinks, and a chance to dance in this elegant setting with a room filled with performers and fans of our local ballet.
If you wish to attend this special AfterGlow event, when purchasing tickets at ticketmaster.com for the Friday, Dec. 9 performance of “The Nutcracker” be sure to select the “add AfterGlow tickets” to your order before checking out.
Why is it that even non-ballet audiences are familiar with the Nutcracker?
By Charles Flachs
How has The Nutcracker become an American tradition and why do so many companies and artists in different dance genres perform it regularly? Perhaps some historical context will be helpful in explaining the universal appeal of this holiday dance extravaganza.
Today almost every major ballet company in the US and Canada, as well as companies throughout Europe, perform this ballet. There are hip-hop adaptions and even Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician, composed his own version of the music. The Nutcracker, a classical ballet created over a century ago, is a successful tradition, artistically and financially.
Classical ballet has requirements to be successful: superb music, spirited dancing, inspired choreography and a continuation of the Romantic Eras’ blended themes of realism followed by fantasy. In all these instances, The Nutcracker excels. The renowned Russian ballet reviewer and critic Akim Volynsky wrote:
“…ballet masters of old sensed that the fairy tale constitutes the plot of all genuine ballet. This is why the classical dances in Giselle, Raymonda, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are associated with various themes from fairy tales. They begin with a more or less magnificent and solemn opening, followed by the obligatory realistic plot. Then suddenly the realism is abandoned, and the fantastic features of the fairy tale in their abstract choreographic designs are revealed before of eyes.” (Volysnky 1911-1925:238)
Despite competing claims for the “original” version of the Nutcracker, there are a series of historically incontrovertible facts. The Nutcracker (or “Casse–Noisette”), a Classical Ballet in two acts and three scenes, was first choreographed in December 1892 and produced in St. Petersburg, Russia by the Maryinsky Ballet. Originally the choreographer was to be the famous father of classical ballet, Marius Petipa. Petipa was a Frenchman who had quickly risen in the ranks of the theatre and developed the classical ballet genre over the span of sixty years of innovative choreography. However, as he began to work on the Nutcracker, Petipa fell ill, and it was left to his assistant, a Russian, Lev Ivanov, to complete the bulk of the work.
The story, also credited to Ivanov, is derived from the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice. As in most classical ballets, the story line does not exactly follow the written version, with liberties taken to increase the scenic spectacle and place emphasis on the dancing roles.
In short, Nutcracker is the story of Clara, a young girl whose family is entertaining friends and neighbors at a party in her parents’ home. Here we meet (depending on the production) all types of characters, including performing dolls, and Clara’s mysterious uncle Drosslemyer. Clara is given a nutcracker doll as a gift by her eccentric uncle. Her brother Fritz then attempts to steal it from her. During the ensuing chase, the doll is broken, and Drosslemyer consoles Clara as she places the doll under the tree for safekeeping. After the party, the guests leave and Clara and Fritz are sent upstairs to bed. Clara, however, cannot sleep, and creeps back down the stairs to check on her nutcracker. She falls asleep with the doll and begins to dream.
The ballet then leaves the world of realism and turns to fantasy. The small Christmas tree seen in the first act begins to magically grow skyward as large mice, one with a crown on its head, start a battle with the nutcracker that has come to life, portrayed by a dancer wearing a nutcracker mask. During the battle, the King mouse is distracted by Clara who strikes him with her ballet slipper, enabling the nutcracker to slay him. The nutcracker removes his mask, completing his transformation into a real Prince, and then escorts Clara to the land of the Snowflakes. Here, the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” is performed, concluding the first act.
The second act, set in the “Kingdom of Sweets”, is a series of divertissements viewed by Clara as if still in a dream. These dances often represent, more or less, countries and dances throughout the world. Clara is given a seat of honor where she presides over the action. The ballet ends with Clara awakening back in her home with the toy nutcracker in her arms. She and the audience are left wondering how much of the ballet was a dream and how much reality.
Ivanov had already assisted Petipa with another classical ballet, Swan Lake, where he is credited for the impeccable musicality and phrasing of the choreography in the 2nd and 4th acts.
The music for the Nutcracker was again by the same composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Perhaps Ivanov had an affinity for the music of Tchaikovsky; we know that the composer was greatly impressed with the choreography when he saw the ballet performed.
Tchaikovsky accepted the commission from the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. It was Vsevolojsky who came up with the idea of using a streamlined version of Hoffman’s story by famed French writer Alexander Dumas in the 1844. Dumas called his version “The Story of a Hazelnut-cracker.”
While composing the music, Tchaikovsky is said to have made a bet with a friend who asked if the composer could write a melody based on the notes of the octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky asked if it mattered whether the notes were in ascending or descending order, and was assured it did not. This resulted in the Grand Adage section of the “Grand Pas de Deux”. Among other things, the score of The Nutcracker is noted for its use of the celesta, a featured solo instrument in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the second act.Tchaikovsky had doubts about his creative work and initially was not pleased with his composition. Eventually, as he worked on the score, he came to think his music had potential.
The Early Productions
In the Maryinsky production, Antonietta dell’ Era, an Italian ballerina, appeared in the leading role of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. Other roles were performed by a veritable who’s who of ballet history, with Paul Gerdt dancing the part of the Prince, Olga Preobrazhenskaya one of the clockwork dolls, and Sergei Lagat dancing the Nutcracker. Although the ballet continued to be performed in Russia after the premier, it was not an unqualified success. Critics complained of a disjointed storyline, too many children in the cast, and some, surprisingly, even disliked the score. Tchaikovsky died within a year of the staging never knowing how popular his music would become.
It was left to the Russian émigré community to promote the Nutcracker tradition. As early as 1932 a few Russian expatriates were staging partial Nutcrackers in Vancouver, Canada, and Portland, Oregon. In 1934, a version was performed at London’s Vic-Wells (later named the Royal Ballet) staged by Nicholas Sergeyev, who was the Maryinsky Theatre’s former chief regisseur.
In the United States, audiences became familiar with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s condensed Nutcracker. It had a brief party scene in the first act, moved quickly to the Snowflake Waltz (which was eventually eliminated in their presentation) and then on to the second act divertissements and “Grand Pas de Deux”. That specific choreography, for the “Pas de Deux” section of the complete ballet, was still being passed on to new generations of dancers in many regional American ballet companies as late as the 1980s, with staging by the masterful Ballet Russe dancer, Frederic Franklin.
The first full-length restaging of the ballet is often attributed to George Balanchine, but there was another company that preceded New York City Ballet’s storied version.
As one of three brothers in a dancing family, Willam Christensen first put together the second act divertissements in Portland with the help of a Russian émigré composer, Jacques Gershkovitch. Christensen knew nothing about the production but choreographed an inspired series of dances that drew raves in Portland. By the 1940s, Christensen had become the founder and director and of the San Francisco Ballet, a company originally associated with the Opera.
Looking for a full-length ballet to establish the fledgling company, Christensen chose The Nutcracker. He again drew on the Russian community, picking up details of the staging that were missing from the abbreviated version performed by the touring Ballet Russe company, a version that he had undoubtedly seen.
His brothers Lew and Harold were both dancers who performed under the direction of George Balanchine, who was working in New York before the formation of his company, the New York City Ballet.
When Balanchine, who was choreographing for the Ballet Russe Company at the time, arrived in San Francisco, Christensen invited him to his apartment to ask questions about the original staging. Balanchine encouraged him to choreograph his own steps and acquainted him with the previously unknown buffoon character, Mother Ginger, who appears in the second act. Staged in 1944, the success of this full-length production helped establish San Francisco Ballet and Willam Christensen as its director. However, the company did not do regular December performances of the ballet until the 1950s.
The Popularization of the Ballet
The movie-going audience was already familiar with music from The Nutcracker. Walt Disney’s Fantasia, released in 1940, was a very popular animated film that set one of its segments to “Nutcracker Suite.” Animation of fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves, were portrayed, using most of the score’s second act music. However, it was undoubtedly, the George Balanchine version that propelled the ballet into the holiday spectacle today enjoyed by millions. Balanchine created his full-length Nutcracker in 1954 for New York City Ballet. In his own words:
“I have liked this ballet from the first time I danced in it as a boy, when I did small roles in the Maryinsky theatre production. When I was fifteen, I danced the Nutcracker Prince. Years later in New York, when our company decided to do an evening-long ballet, I preferred to turn to The Nutcracker with which American audiences were not sufficiently familiar.” (Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet 1978)
After the New York City Ballet’s successful 1954 premiere, the ballet was scheduled for an entire month of performances the following Christmas. Now that full-length versions were regularly performed on both coasts, its popularity soared. Part of the appeal can be attributed to the secular observance of Christmas in North America. The ballet dovetailed neatly into what is often considered a festive children’s holiday without the somber overtones of religious themes and rituals. Children in the cast also added to the popularity of the ballet, resulting in a wider audience and more accessibility, especially for those who considered ballet to be elitist, or not popular, entertainment.
Balanchine and his company also enjoyed an unexpected benefit of having children in the cast. Their presence contributed to the financial success of the ballet by having more of the extended families participating as audience members. There are few certainties in the business of promoting classical ballet, but presenting The Nutcracker often ensures an audience and can thus be counted on to allow a company to meet its financial obligations.
The Nutcracker today In America, it is possible that four generations of the same family have delighted in watching this ballet. Given its long history, the ballet invites a wide range of dance styles and staging.
Each company seeks ways to make the production feel new. Some companies infuse a local atmosphere into the ballet, especially in the first act. The local historical context can increase the audiences’ enjoyment as they recognize references seen in the ballet that relate to their own lives.
Nods to history and the use of artistic and renowned personalities in the staging thrive, as ballet companies continue to find fresh approaches. A perfect example combining these aspects of production emerged in Seattle, Washington, where Kent Stowell’s version had sets and costumes designed by the famous children’s author Maurice Sendak – a tradition for Seattle-area audiences since 1983. It is now being replaced by the original 1954 Balanchine version.
An interview with one major American ballet company director revealed that the choice of how to shape a new production, or even terminate an old one, is fraught with conflict. He described presenting the ballet as if it were a restaurant. The food must be good enough to have the customer enjoy the meal but not so extravagant that they cannot see themselves coming back to dine again. There are competing interests to pay attention to. The Nutcracker needs to be a success and continue to draw in an audience, especially one that may not regularly attend the ballet. At the same time, it must have high artistic quality, enticing the audience to see other diverse company productions. Regardless of the history or local flavor costumes and sets choose to highlight, ultimately, the choreography and dancing remain key to stimulating interest.
Thankfully, those of us who love The Nutcracker can breathe a sigh of relief. In one form or another this ballet, now well over one hundred years old, will continue to be a beloved holiday celebration. Each year a party will happen; Clara will dream; the mice will fight soldiers, and the audience will be taken to a magical land where they can dream… at least until the curtain falls.
The author, Charles Flachs, professor of dance at Mount Holyoke College and co-director of the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet, was transported into a dance career partly by watching the New York City Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet Nutcrackers as a young ballet student.