"The Nutcracker" turns 125
By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 2, 2017
The dancers whirl around the floor, before coming together to toast one another, then spin away again. The director watches closely, holding off for several minutes as the action continues, before stopping things and then starting it over. In the corner, the rehearsal pianist flips back the pages to his score and starts again.
The constant motion on the floor contrasts with the other members of the cast at the side. Some are resting, others stretching out or practicing their own steps. They all watch intently, waiting for their turn on the floor. The director gives the dancers a break while he works with one of the youngsters on his moves across the floor.
Though clad in T-shirts, stretch pants, sweatshirts or other comfy gear, and on a stage with a minimum of props, it soon becomes clear to anyone watching that this is rehearsal for The Nutcracker. The miniature nutcracker at the center of the floor is pretty much a giveaway, as is the dancing swordfight. "The Nutcracker" mask finally donned by one of the dancers is confirmation.
Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker" has become a staple of the season, turning 125 years old this year. Major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of "The Nutcracker." At Interlochen Center for the Arts, it is a holiday favorite, bringing yearly or bi-yearly performances.
Any of those who were around in 1892, when it debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia, would probably be astounded at its staying power and continued popularity. If not an outright failure, its initial reception was, at best, mixed. Criticism included everything from the dancers’ performance to the choreography to the libretto based on a story by Alexandre Dumas pere, itself derived from a darker tale by E.T.A. Hoffman.
In Hoffman’s original version, young Clara (who became Marie in the Dumas version, leading to some confusion as the girl’s name morphed back and forth through the years) eventually was whisked away by the Nutcracker to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. In the ballet, by contrast, her vision, from the Nutcracker coming to life to the fight with the Mouse King, is all part of a dream.
The ballet’s popularity really began to take off after it was choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954 for performance by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. The New York Ballet’s performance was televised in 1957 and again in 1958. Thus began an inexorable climb to the point it is now a holiday tradition for ballet companies and audiences across the country and globe. It eventually begat variations with Hawaiians, who added hula dancing, and Canadians, who added hockey (why not?). Choreographers Mark Morris set it in the swinging ’60s, and Donald Byrd placed it in Harlem.
Whatever the setting or choreography, it has proven to have staying power. Interlochen’s Director of Dance Joseph Morrissey, who is at the helm of this year’s production of The Nutcracker, attributes its continuing popularity to one thing: the music. “I really believe it’s Tchaikovsky’s score. When it premiered, it was deemed a failure. It was too symphonic. We all do our own take,” on the choreography, he said. “What always remains is the score.”
The combination of music, dance, and the surrealistic story has made "The Nutcracker" immortal. Still, for Morrissey, it’s the music that is front and center. “I’m not a musician, but I love the music. The music is first,” he added. And at Interlochen, the Tchaikovsky’s score will receive a complete symphonic showcase, with the student orchestra accompanying the dancers.
Morrissey said the production provides something for everyone. “From the visual aspect, there’s the new sleigh and the new backdrop (for the Palace of Sweets). It will really bring out the color of the dancers. I’ve worked with the set design to make sure there is a piece of each dancer in it.”
And given the occasion, it’s only appropriate the title character receive a gift as well. “We have a new Nutcracker costume for his birthday,” said Morrissey.
The ballet’s yearly holiday run gives it a reach that cannot be overstated. That’s true at Interlochen as well as elsewhere across the country. “It’s the most popular ballet. For many kids, it’s their entry into ballet,” Morrissey said.
This year’s performances take place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Dec. 7–9, at 7:30pm, with an additional performance Saturday at 2pm. The show will also be presented at the Cheboygan Opera House on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7:30. For more information, go to Interlochen.org.
Ballet comes to life in Harbor Springs
“The Nutcracker” is being staged not only at Interlochen but also at the Harbor Springs Performing Arts Center by the dancers of the Crooked Tree Arts Center. Heather Raue, the artistic director of the CTAC School of Ballet, said its appeal is universal. “It’s a tradition with families,” she said. A five-year-old will think it’s magical, while an adult will appreciate the dance and the story. “The story is appealing to all ages — little kids, boys, girls, parents and grandparents, whether the battle scene, or the mystique, or the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Raue said Crooked Tree has performed the ballet several times previously. The performance takes on a different tone from year to year, as dancers come and go, and Raue makes subtle changes in the choreography. “We make changes based on who is in the cast or if something needs to be tweaked. Every year it’s a relatively new experience.”
There are over 80 people in the cast, which she said enables her to include students of all ages and members of the community as well, which also broadens its appeal.
The production will be presented Saturday, Dec. 19 at 3pm and 7pm, and Sunday, Dec. 20 at 3pm. For ticket information, go to MyNorthTickets.org.