For some people, no Christmas celebration would be complete without a night or afternoon spent watching a production of the nearly 120-year-old Russian ballet called The Nutcracker.
The Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual version opens tonight at Arts United Center.
Here are some interesting facts about the local production and The Nutcracker in general.
What was the basis for the ballet?
In 1816, German author E.T.A. Hoffman published the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, about a young girl whose nutcracker comes to life and does battle with a Mouse King.
But according to Balinda Craig-Quijada, an associate professor of dance at Kenyon College, some experts believe the Russian ballet that debuted in St. Petersburg in 1892 was more directly based on a lighter-toned version of Hoffman’s tale adapted around 1845 by French writer Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers).
Is The Nutcracker a Christmas tradition everywhere?
In the United States it is, says Karen Gibbons-Brown, the ballet’s artistic director, but that is not necessarily true everywhere in the world.
In Europe, productions of The Nutcracker can and have happened at any point in the year, she says.
What’s new in this year’s Fort Wayne Ballet production?
Kendall Teague of the North Carolina Dance Theatre will play the Snow Cavalier, Gibbons-Brown says, and Justin McMillan of the Richmond Ballet will play the Sugar Plum Cavalier.
There is new choreography in the Snow Pas de Deux and the Trepak dance, she says, and several new costumes. There is also a new grand drape, aka front curtain, with a likeness of the Nutcracker on it, Gibbons-Brown says.
Yes, real snow does fall on Fort Wayne audiences.
There was a time when soap flakes were dropped onstage during the snow scene, Gibbons-Brown says, and this created a slick surface that was likely to send dancers tutu-over-teakettle.
Now, benign frozen liquid falls on both the dancers and the audience, but how it is done is something Gibbons-Brown says she prefers to keep secret.
The Nutcracker begets The Muttcracker
Last year, the Fort Wayne Ballet teamed up with Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control and devised a Nutcracker innovation that had never before been seen on any stage or in any animal shelter. They dubbed it The Muttcracker.
Adoptable pets were transformed into amateur actors, and patrons had the option of taking home those animals or others whose thespian skills were not quite up to snuff.
The program was an enormous success.
All the animals were adopted the Tuesday after we closed, Gibbons-Brown says.
Gibbons-Brown says six other national dance companies have taken Fort Wayne Ballet’s lead and added The Muttcracker to their Nutcrackers this year.
The ballet’s project manager, Michele DeVinney, has even devised a how-to guide, Gibbons-Brown says, for ballet companies that want to adopt the dog adoption concept but don’t quite know how to go about it. It includes behavioral tests for determining whether a dog is ready to tread the boards.
Gibbons-Brown says The Muttcracker gives voice to those that have no voice in the community.
We like to do things like that, she says. And now it has gotten, if you’ll excuse the expression, legs of its own, and it is actually happening in other communities. And that is a part of the process that we think is really wonderful.
Gibbons-Brown will start preparing for next year’s Nutcracker while watching this year’s Nutcracker.
During this year’s run of the ballet, Gibbons-Brown will sit in one of the back rows and take notes. She likes this perspective on the show, she says, because she gets to watch as children in the audience try to catch flakes during the snow scene.
When I see children reach their hands out, she says, that is the magic of the Nutcracker.’
In January, Gibbons-Brown will have her last post-production meeting for this year’s Nutcracker. This last post-production meeting also serves as the first pre-production meeting for next year’s Nutcracker.
At this meeting, Gibbons-Brown plans to pull out her notes.
They humor me, she says of her creative staff. They’ve been really great about it.
Memories may fade, but Gibbons-Brown says she is always ready to whip out those notes.
I usually get about a third what I ask for, she says.
Among her more pie-in-the-sky desires for the production is a living angel – a dancer who perches on the tree like a decoration and then comes to life, she says, flying down on wires.
Why is The Nutcracker as popular in the U.S. as it is today?
There are a number of factors, says Lynn Garafola, a professor of dance at Barnard College. She says The Nutcracker was televised several times in the ’50s, including an episode of Playhouse 90 that was an adaptation of George Balanchine’s New York City ballet production (only four years old at that point). Balanchine himself played Drosselmeyer.
This program had a huge impact on people in the days before satellite TV, Garafola says.
The New York City ballet also extended The Nutcracker’s reach by touring the nation with a production of it, she says.
Because The Nutcracker has no fixed choreography, lots of roles of children and parts for non-dancers and non-actors, it became a fave in many American communities.
Garafola says participating in The Nutcracker is a wonderful adventure for a young girl.
It’s not a difficult plot to follow, it espouses ideals about the holidays and family that I think most people share, and it can be adapted.
Also I think it has a wonderful score, she says.