Holiday Tradition, with a Local Flair
The Oregon Ballet Theatre’s phenomenal holiday ballet treat, “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” is an enduring Portland tradition that brings the whole family together. The Nutcracker opens on Saturday, December 8, and runs for 14 performances through Saturday December 23, 2012, at the Keller Auditorium.
“One of the first things you notice about a Nutcracker audience is the number of extended families that attend: grandparents, uncles, nieces and nephews,” said Trisha Mead, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s marketing and communications director.
“It’s definitely an exciting performance with plenty of action to captivate both boys and girls.”
The Oregon Ballet Theatre also features surprise performers each year. In addition to 26 professional dancers, the Nutcracker likes to add spice to the show with guest appearances from local luminaries.
“We’ve had members of the Portland Timbers, the Trailblazers, honored schoolteachers, politicians and others,” Mead said.
Does this mean that the local celebrities perform ballet? Mead said that they generally appear onstage during the first act’s party scene and dance a waltz.
“When Futty Danso, from the Portland Timbers, came out to perform, there was a huge cheer from the crowd,” she said. “What also was special is that he later came back and took a ballet class from us. We love soccer players — they understand fancy footwork.”
For larger groups, Oregon Ballet Theatre often can place a member onstage for a portion of the performance.
What’s a holiday without inviting the kids?
Furthering Oregon Ballet’s efforts to connect The Nutcracker with young audiences, more than 100 community school kids, ages 4–16, train, rehearse and perform as members of the cast.
Do they just stand or jump around? “No, these local boys and girls perform the ballet as conceived by Balanchine,” Mead said.
Making up two-thirds of the cast, the local youngsters get to show their chops during the ballet’s big fight between the toy soldiers and the mouse army.
Some of the ballet’s most memorable moments include the emergence of Mother Ginger, a 20-foot-high character with a dress that covers up the Marzipan children.
“Mother Ginger has been a role for men in drag since the beginning of the Nutcracker, and local performer Poison Waters has been a guest artist in that role,” Mead recalled.
Another breathtaking moment takes place during the second half of the ballet, when the dancing snowflakes mixed with “snow” fall onto the stage. But the toughest part for a dancer is the candy cane role, where the performers have to do several jumps in a row without tripping themselves up. “That’s the portion they have to train and rehearse the most for,” Mead said.
From dark to light
While touted as a family favorite, the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was never supposed to be for children. It was a dark, violent story about the duality of existence, written by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, who was born in Prussia in 1776.
According to Claire Willett, a writer for the Oregon Ballet Theatre, Hoffman was a low-income bureaucrat who longed to be a successful artist. He is credited with inspiring the minds of thinkers as brilliant as Freud and Jung, and writers as influential as Poe and Hawthorne. He often wrote about characters with a hidden identity or a secret face. “In the story, the Nutcracker is a prince who is turned into an ugly wooden toy,” wrote Willett. “Marie’s uncle Drosselmeyer is both a clever toymaker and a sinister magical force. Ugly is beautiful. Beautiful is ugly. People you think you can trust will turn around and betray you. Attractive appearances hide dark hearts.”
Alexandre Dumas, a French novelist who wrote “The Three Musketeers,” turned Hoffman’s work into a much softer short story, and it is this version from which Balanchine’s ballet is drawn. Balanchine (1904–1983) studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg (Maryinsky) from 1913–1921, where he danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince in the Petipa/Ivanov “Nutcracker.”
Balanchine founded New York City Ballet in 1948, and debuted his own version of “The Nutcracker” at City Center on February 2, 1954. It has been an enduring, holiday success ever since.
Photo credits: Principal Dancers Haiyan Wu and Yang Zu as the Sugar Plum Fairy as Her Cavalier (inside), and Kelsie Nobriga (thumbnail) in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2011 production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photos by Blaine Truitt Covert.