The Nutcracker is simultaneously the most enjoyable and exhausting part of any professional dancer’s season. Growing up at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, I performed in The Nutcracker for a decade straight. Over those 10 years, I danced in two separate productions: those choreographed by Stowell & Sendak and George Balanchine. I remember performing in my first show and watching the more advanced students dance while I was in the prologue sharing a part with Cassidy Isaacson (now a company dancer at Grand Rapids Ballet). They danced to immensely powerful and joyous music; they got to dance in the Snow Scene! But Waltz of the Snowflakes was my favorite; just hearing the orchestra and the beautiful music was enough to set my eyes on ballet as a career. The violins being plucked, paper snowflakes gently falling, opera singers singing the sweet melody, and ballerinas twirling in frosty blue and white tutus never fail to raise goosebumps on my arms.
After my first experience with The Nutcracker, I set a goal for myself: I would dance the Waltz of the Snowflakes one day. Eight years of hard work later, I finally reached my goal during my second to final year at PNB School as part of the Professional Division program. I twirled in a frosty blue and white tutu and felt the snowflakes fall upon my crown-laden head while listening to the orchestra grow and swell to the sound of the iconic waltz. With stage lights illuminating the expensive stage and the audience still, holding their breath as the even beat of the waltz grew stronger and stronger. Let me tell you, it was awesome!
Waltz of the Snowflakes is hands down the most challenging part in The Nutcracker when it comes to pure stamina and mental strength. For instance, in Grand Rapids Ballet’s production choreographed by Val Caniparoli, I spend less than one minute offstage during the seven-minute run time of Waltz of the Snowflakes. Talk about your daily cardio: my Apple Watch tells me it is almost equivalent to a mile and a half run.
In 2008, when I performed in my first Nutcracker at PNB, I had only one part and performed in just over half of the 45 scheduled shows. As I matured in age and experience, I performed in most of the shows doing multiple parts. My most current tally over thirteen years? Over 500 shows, three different productions, 15 parts, and countless hours of rehearsal.
All of this sounds wonderful and joyous right? And it is. But putting The Nutcracker on stage also includes seven-day work weeks and long nights in the theater. December is the holiday season for most, but for dancers it also includes sewing countless pointe shoes, trying to catch your breath after running the Snow Scene for the third time that day, and eating dinner while icing your feet and nursing your sore muscles. But, the joy that is brought to young children and their families alike in the holiday season makes it all worth it.
The experience of dancing in The Nutcracker remains just as magical to me as it was as a young ballet student. And now, as one of the “big kids,” I strive to make every audience member’s experience as transformative as my own.
Val Caniparoli’s The Nutcracker would not be possible without YOUR support! Become a season subscriber or donate today to help us continue doing what we love. Until next year, happy holidays and thank you for supporting Grand Rapids Ballet!
The countless intricate details in The Nutcracker all come together seamlessly every December to create West Michigan’s favorite family holiday tradition seen by over 50,000 people since its premiere in 2014.
• In each performance, there are 68 Grand Rapids Ballet School students and approximately 40 company dancers—most of whom are doing multiple roles. In fact, any company dancer can do up to five separate roles per show!
• There are 149 original costumes with 58 of those being tutus which require over 5,000 yards of tulle.
• There are three Sugar Plum Fairy tutus, five Marzipan Castle scene tutus, 19 snow scene tutus, 15 Waltz of the Flower tutus, two Spanish tutus, 10 harlequin tutus, and two Dream Clara tutus.
• It takes seven full-size semi-trucks to move the entire production to DeVos Performance Hall.
• It takes seven days to assemble the Broadway-quality sets designed by Tony Award winner Eugene Lee based on the illustrations of The Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg.
• There are 15 toy soldiers and seven mice in each fight scene including one infamous Mouse King.
• There are 12 individual snowflakes in the snow scene and 12 pink flowers twirl with one Sugar Plum Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers.
• In each performance, 30+ crowns and tiaras are worn: 12 snow scene crowns, 1 Dream Clara tiara, two Sugar Plum Fairy tiaras, and three Marzipan Castle crowns. Talk about glamour!
• Clara’s Nutcracker Party is attended by 400 happy children, parents, and grandparents.
• The company and school both spend at least two months rehearsing Val Caniparoli’s gorgeous choreography including two dress rehearsals.
All of this adds up to one spectacular show that you and your family won’t want to miss. Tickets are available at 616.454.4771 x10 or on our website.
We hope you’re as excited as we are about our amazing new season! Without further ado, here we go…
WILD SWEET LOVE
Photo of company dancer Yuka Oba in Allegro Brillante by Isaac Aoki
Enjoy four passion-filled works in one spectacular performance featuring Allegro Brilliante by the father of American ballet, George Balanchine, and music by Tchaikovsky; Trey McIntyre’s fun-filled epic musing on romantic rituals, Wild Sweet Love featuring an eclectic mix of popular music from Queen, The Partridge Family, Roberta Flack, and more; and the hauntingly alluring Ghost Light by our choreographer-in-residence, Penny Saunders. The evening will also include the first piece created specifically for Grand Rapids Ballet by new Artistic Director James Sofranko. And you won’t want to miss the black-tie gala on Thursday, October 18, welcoming James to Grand Rapids!
Photo of Ghost Light by Dane Wayne courtesy OwenCox Dance Group
Photo of Wild Sweet Love by Peter Mueller courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg
It isn’t the holidays in West Michigan without The Nutcracker. The world-famous design of Chris Van Allsburg, Broadway-quality sets by Tony Award winner Eugene Lee, festive choreography by Val Caniparoli, and the live music by your Grand Rapids Symphony all come together to create pure magic you and your family will remember for a lifetime! Clara’s Nutcracker Party will take place on Sunday, December 18 at 11am at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, too.
Photo by Tim Motley
Photo by Scott Rasmussen
Photo of company dancer Cassidy Isaacson by Scott Rasmussen
Created for you by Princess Grace Award winner and our choreographer-in-residence Penny Saunders, Joffrey Ballet’s Nicolas Blanc, and the talented dancers of Grand Rapids Ballet, our contemporary dance series returns with works from the heart and soul that show a completely different side of their unique talents. This is personal— and hands down one of the most poignant productions you’ll see from us all season.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
See things from an unexpected angle with the mystical Extremely Close by Hubbard Street’s internationally renowned resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo; Val Caniparoli’s, Ibsen’s House—a portrayal of strong female characters from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s most well-known plays including A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, set to a live performance of Dvorak’s compelling Piano Quintet No. 2; and a second new piece by James Sofranko.
Photo of company dancer Connie Flachs in Ibsen’s House by Isaac Aoki
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Photo of company dancers Cassidy Isaacson and Levi Teachout by Eric Bouwens
Go down the rabbit hole for the triumphant return of the dizzyingly beautiful Alice in Wonderland from choreographer Brian Enos and visual artist Luis Grané. No collaborative effort more fully captures the surrealist and symbolic possibilities of this beloved tale with such exquisite beauty and extravagant imagination. Revue Magazine called it “A modern masterpiece!”
So there it is: A season filled with classics and new works that you won’t want to miss. Single ticket sales start Monday, June 18 so stay tuned for more details!
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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.