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.
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.
Choreography is one of the most important ways to tell the story and communicate emotion in any ballet production. In 2014, Grand Rapids Ballet is reimagined The Nutcracker with the creative dream team of children’s book illustrator/author Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) and Tony Award winning set designer Eugene Lee (Wicked, Sweeney Todd) for set and production design, and Val Caniparoli for choreography. Grand Rapids Ballet’s newest version of The Nutcracker is a unique production for West Michigan, which stays true to the original story. Grand Rapids Ballet chose Val Caniparoli of the San Francisco Ballet, who is known for his innovative choreography, to choreograph and create a new Nutcracker voice.
His Background Val Caniparoli, a longtime choreographer since 1982, is one of America’s most sought after choreographers. He has contributed to the repertoires of more than 45 dance companies and won many awards. He has been with the San Francisco Ballet for over 40 years, where he is a principal character dancer. Caniparoli is known for his innovative choreography and his versatility. His body of work is based in classical ballet, but his choreography is also influenced by many other types of movement, ranging from modern dance and ethnic dance to social dancing and ice skating. His diverse body of work has led to him being one of the world’s most highly sought after American choreographers.
Original Van Allsburg illustration of the “Street Scene” backdrop
Caniparoli believes in collaborating with the entire creative team on a ballet production. He also isn’t afraid to change a successful ballet if he comes up with a promising new idea while working on a production. Caniparoli shares some of his creative process: “I rarely think of steps. I’m inspired to create by being in the room with the dancers and with the music. I’m one that collaborates right away with everyone that’s involved in the project. I don’t wait for the designers to come in. They are in the studio from day one. They are affected by the rehearsals. Sometimes I’m affected by a design, and it gives me a great idea. It all intertwines with me.” He feels that collaborating with the dancers is important to creating choreography. “In many ways, the dancers take ownership of the ballet and give it a better quality product because of it. Everyone is involved and takes great pride in what they accomplished,” says Caniparoli.
Original costume sketches by Patricia Barker
Reimagining The Nutcracker
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker has worked with the creative team of Van Allsburg, Lee, and Caniparoli to create a new Nutcracker that is unique to West Michigan, while still honoring the traditional storyline. The choreography plays a key role in bringing the production together for this vision. Caniparoli choreographs from the perspective of both a dancer and choreographer. He comments, “I’ve been dancing the San Francisco Ballet version of The Nutcracker for over 40 years, and I’m still dancing it. I’m heavily influenced by three different choreographers within those 43 years: Lew Christensen, William Christensen, and Helgi Tomasson. I’m influenced heavily by Lew Christensen’s version of The Nutcracker. The Christensen brothers brought the first version of Nutcracker to North America, at the San Francisco Ballet. I’m highly influenced by their background, which was classical ballet and vaudeville. I was coached by Lew Christensen. There is this great picture of him coaching me as Drosselmeier during Nutcracker rehearsal, and I distinctly remember how he taught me and what he wanted me to do. So that is ingrained in my head for how I want this Drosselmeier to be. It’s my interpretation of how he taught me, so it is kind of cool how things are handed down.”
Caniparoli believes The Nutcracker is the hardest and most important ballet for a choreographer. He says, “The challenge is telling the story, and connecting everything, and making everything mean something to the audience. You want adults and children to love it and come back every year. The big challenge is also the importance of the work. It’s got to last, at minimum 10 years. It’s the hardest ballet for any choreographer because of audience expectations, and working with both children as well as company dancers.”
Reimagining The Nutcracker is not new to Caniparoli. “This is my third version of The Nutcracker, and each version is different. I love recreating it and rethinking it, and trying to find different ways of making that music work for me as well as the audience. It is like a different viewpoint of it. I love that challenge,” says Caniparoli. Caniparoli’s shares his hopes for audience reaction: “I want this Nutcracker to be fun for everybody and have a sense of humor as well as magic. I want the audience to have fun and to take their children, and watch their wonderment as they see it for the first time. I want them to see it through their children’s eyes.”
Val Caniparoli’s versatile choreography style and his Nutcracker history and training, make him an ideal voice for bringing Grand Rapids Ballet’s newest Nutcracker vision to life.