Varied productions show enduring charms of 'Nutcracker'
Most Christmas traditions stretch back centuries, but others sprang up much more recently. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet “The Nutcracker” is now ubiquitous at this time of year, but for its first half century, it was a forgotten stage work. Only an orchestral suite drawn from the ballet score enjoyed life in concert halls, on recordings and in Walt Disney's film “Fantasia.”
The story of a girl's magical Christmas Eve, lifted by Tchaikovsky's enchanting and exciting music, is widely seen as perfect family entertainment for this holiday. “The Nutcracker” was first performed in Russia in 1892, but it wasn't until 1944 that the San Francisco Ballet gave the first American performance. George Balanchine's 1954 production with the New York City Ballet, presented twice on television, fueled its delayed, but meteoric, rise in popularity.
The ballet's story was created from a French adaptation of a German story, which is why in some productions, such as Laurel Ballet's, the girl is named Clara, and others, such as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's, she is Marie. Either way, she receives a nutcracker as a Christmas present from her odd uncle Drosselmeyer. The present provides more than the ballet's title. It sets off girl's imagination, leading to mock-scary and then utterly sweet fantasies.
Laurel Ballet presents a relatively traditional “Nutcracker” in Victorian America, according to artistic director Eleanor Tornblom. She was inspired by Balanchine's production.
“We use all local dancers except for the males we hire,” Tornblom says. “The full sets and costumes are fantabulous.”
Tornblom, 80, is excited to be doing “The Nutcracker” again.
“I have done it 24 times with the Westmoreland Symphony, not counting the times I have done it before,” she says. “So I can tell you the score holds up and the story holds up. It's a very diverse ballet with Russian, Arabian and Chinese characters.”
The company prides itself on using children for authenticity. Three girls, each 12 or 13, will dance Clara.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of “The Nutcracker” was created in 2002 by its artistic director Terrence Orr. He set it in Pittsburgh, with a set that includes an allusion to Kennywood, and uses state-of-the-art production values. Marie is also a little older than in many productions and ready for some romance.
Orr tweaks the show every year during rehearsals.
“I think we've done a lot of improvements aimed at clarity and enhancement of the story,” he says. “It's amazing how its grown and gotten richer.”
Every dancer in the company has six to eight roles to perform during the run of 24 performances. Even if a dancer performs a role a handful of times with the same partner, all the roles around them will be performed by different dancers.
“That makes it much more alive,” says Orr. “The reactions get them more alive as different artists and actors tell the story. This also creates a concentration in the performance.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.