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'The Nutcracker': An American tradition for families

Monday, Dec. 6, 2010

Every year since 1986, Frank Irvin has taken his daughters Kadence, Juliet and Abigail to see "The Nutcracker." This year, he's looking forward to extending his family tradition by taking the first of his granddaughters to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of the Christmas classic.

Seeing "The Nutcracker" reflects on holidays past, present and future for Irvin, who lives in Shaler.

"It reminds me of what my parents did for me and my brother," he says. "It also recalls the times with my family during the holidays and now, future Christmases with my grandkids. It's not about how much you get in presents, but how much time you can give to make the ones you love remember those days. The grandchildren might not recognize that now, but my children found that out as they became loving parents."

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will begin its run of 16 performances of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" on Friday night at the Benedum Center, Downtown. It will use a recording of Tchaikovsky's music.

Laurel Ballet and the Westmoreland Symphony conducted by Thomas Hong will give three performances of "The Nutcracker" this weekend.

Because "The Nutcracker" is, by far, the most widely attended ballet in America, it is surprising to learn that it was a flop when first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. To this day, it has not been embraced in Europe as it is in America.

The first American production of the ballet was staged by Willem Christensen and the San Francisco Ballet and introduced Christmas Eve in 1944. Ten years later, George Balanchine introduced his famous production at the New York City Ballet, a staging that features an immense Christmas tree rising magically from the stage floor during the first act.

Pittsburgh's ongoing "Nutcracker" tradition is only two generations old. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre began performing it in 1969 and has every year since. The ballet's action takes place on Christmas Eve.

"It was something to be done over the holidays and has caught on as a tradition," says Terrence S. Orr, the ballet's artistic director. "The magical story of 'The Nutcracker' is not a hard nut story. It's more of a romantic story of Marie and her travels with her nephew. They get rid of the curse, get into the battle with the King Rat, and go through a snow country journey toward the second act in fantasy land. It is resolved in coming back home."

Orr's staging of the ballet, which debuted in 2002, makes it a love story from beginning to end. He says the question for Marie in the final scene is, "Was the one night real or a dream• She realizes it was real. She has proof of where she's been. It's a very magical story of enchantment and love and coming of age. It's a kind of romantic story we all have about ourselves."

When Louise Polczynski began going to "The Nutcracker" with her friend Betty Petrucci in 1984, they became hooked on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Six years ago, Petrucci decided it was time for a change, and a girls' night out was transformed into a Polczynski family tradition with the grandchildren.

"I began by taking my oldest granddaughter, Carli. Magen heard Carli talking about it and asked when she could go. Then Mara was anxious to go," says Polczynski, who lives in Irwin. "This year, I told my grandson Cameron about the fierce battle scene between the King Rat and the Nutcracker Prince, and he agreed to come along. I hope the tradition continues next year with all four grandchildren."

The Polczynski family tradition doesn't end when the curtain comes down. After the ballet performance, they walk up to Grant Street to see the creche. Then the children choose a restaurant for dinner, where they are joined by their grandfather, Richard.

Irvin began taking his kids to "The Nutcracker" as a natural outgrowth of special holiday activities with his dad. He also coaches girls' Little League and competitive cheerleading.

"You'd be surprised how many dads don't do anything with their daughters," he says. "I feel bad for them. The hardest comment I hear as a coach is, 'I wish you were my dad.' It's a compliment, but I want to tell the dad that he has a daughter who wants him to be part of her activities."

Now, Irvin has a new generation of dates for "The Nutcracker" penciled into his schedule.

"I am looking forward to experiencing again a child's amazement at 'The Nutcracker,' " he says. "There's nothing like it to really feel that Christmas spirit and to make unique memories that will last forever."

'The Nutcracker'

By: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Dec. 17, 21 and 22; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 18 and 23; noon and 4:30 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 19 and 26.

Admission: $20.75-$90.75

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or

Laurel Ballet

With: Westmoreland Symphony, Thomas Hong, conductor

When: 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10-$30

Where: Palace Theatre, Greensburg

Details: 724-836-8000 or

Pittsburgh Youth Ballet

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $15-$25

Where: Upper St. Clair High School Theater

Details: 724-969-6000 or



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