Ever since The Nutcracker premièred at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and a libretto adapted by Alexandre Dumas Père from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice,” the ballet has captivated audiences of all ages around the world. Very few other works of art have had such a lasting, persistent, global, and undisputed appeal. This 123-year-old ballet is performed every holiday season in most major cities in Canada, U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba, China, Japan, and beyond.
The ballet was first performed outside of Russia in England in 1934. Its first North American performance was in 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet, staged by its artistic director and Balanchine student William Christensen. The New York City Ballet first performed George Balanchine’s Nutcracker in 1954, but the ballet did not begin to achieve its great popularity until after the Balanchine staging became a hit in New York City. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet first produced The Nutcracker in Canada in 1972.
It is a Gesamtkunstwerk of captivating music, masterful dance, magical story, fascinating characters, imaginative set-design and beautiful costumes that seems to touch something very primal in all of us, establishing a direct connection to the wondrous and magical world of childhood, joy, wonder, imagination, mystery, creativity, play, beauty, sweetness, and dream-scapes that we don’t always find access to in our daily lives as adults. So, we turn to monumental works of art, like The Nutcracker, which allow us to temporarily slip into a world that is both familiar and incredible, fascinating and moving, playful and earnest, and what a world it is.
Dance Victoria has been bringing national and international ballet and dance troupes to the Royal Theatre in Victoria since 1997. This year, it presented Alberta Ballet’s The Nutcracker (which first premièred here in 2008) with the music performed by the Victoria Symphony under the direction of Peter Dala, from December 4th to 6th, 2015. Choreographed by Edmund Stripe, who was trained at London’s Royal Ballet School, with set and costume designs by the Emmy-Award winning designer, Zack Brown, this extravagant production displays more than a million dollars in stunning sets and costumes from Cossack soldiers to snowflakes dressed as Russian princesses.
The scale of this production was enormous: 30 dancers from Alberta Ballet; 36 members of the Victoria Symphony; 60 local children dancing as part of the ensemble; and 35 backstage crew members came together to create this magical world set in a winter wonderland and inspired by Imperial Russia. In the second scene of Act I, as Klara, the protagonist, enters the magical dream-world where all the toys come alive, and the perspective shifts to Klara’s point of view from among the toys and the inhabitants of wondrous lands, we become transfixed by her journey and remain captivated by that world until the end.
Alberta Ballet is Canada’s second-largest ballet company and is renowned for its contemporary and classical productions in its repertoire.The organization’s roots were planted in the early 1950s by the late Dr. Ruth Carse before taking its official name of Alberta Ballet in 1966 in Edmonton. In 1990, Alberta Ballet and Calgary City Ballet merged into the company it is today.
This year marks the company’s 49th season. Jean Grand-Maître, the company’s Artistic Director, joined Alberta Ballet in 2002 and has elevated the profile of the organization to a global position. Recently, the company has caught the world’s attention for its “portrait ballets” – collaborations with popular music icons including Joni Mitchell, Sir Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, and k.d. lang. Excerpts from Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and The Drum were performed during the Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
The story of The Nutcracker is centred on a young female protagonist, Klara, who receives a special Christmas gift, a wooden nutcracker, made by her uncle Drosselmeyer. When Klara falls asleep, she dreams that her nutcracker comes to life as Karl, the Nutcracker Prince, who becomes involved in a battle with the evil Mouse King. Klara intervenes to save him and becomes a heroine. To show his gratitude for saving his life and breaking the nutcracker spell, Karl invites Klara on a journey through the Land of Snow with dancing snow flakes and the Snow Queen, and to the Land of Sweets and the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where they are invited to experience a world of magical dances. Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian dancers perform for them. Klara and Karl are invited to dance together. The celebration continues with the Waltz of Flowers, and a finale in which the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier dance a beautiful Pas De Deux. In the end, Klara awakens from her dream and finds herself by her Christmas tree with her beloved Nutcracker toy.
Prior to the advance of film, video, and digital technology, ballet was a highly ephemeral art that dates all the way back to the Italian Renaissance, Catherine de Medici, and Louis the XIV (who was an avid dancer). Following the social and cultural transformation after the multiple French revolutions in the first half of the nineteenth century, ballet lost its aristocratic appeal in France, but continued to flourish in Denmark and Russia. When the young French dancer Marius Petipa came to St. Petersburg in 1847, he trained with French and Danish ballet masters, eventually becoming the leading choreographer at the Mariinsky Theatre and training most of the members of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – a company based in Paris before WWI, who became exiles of Revolutionary Russia and settled in Europe and North America, helping found the major ballet companies around the world. As Jennifer Homans pointed out in her book, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (2010), “The Ballets Russes had placed dance at the centre of European culture for the first time since Louis XIV.” Thus, ballet, more than any other art form, has simultaneously a personal, subjective, and individual side, as well as a very rich historical dimension, depth, tradition, culture, and immediacy. With every new interpretation and staging of the classic work, each performer, artist, musician, and interpreter has to engage with its cultural history and significance, and simultaneously make it new. Thus, each version and experience is both traditional and unique.
On the evening of December 4th, 2015, the role of Klara was performed by Alex Gibson, while Luna Sasaki danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy. The dancers alternated their roles for the four different performances in Victoria. Karl, the Nutcracker Prince was performed by Nicolas Pelletier, alternating with Leiland Charles for the other performances. Especially notable was the balleto-acrobatic performance of Reilley McKinlay, who played the lead Arabian dancer and almost stole the spotlight of the show with her movement and grace.
The most moving and captivating dance number of the ballet is the Flower Waltz that brings all the main dancers and the children dancers (dressed as flowers) together on stage, set to perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music in Tchaikovsky’s magnificent oeuvre.
In the end, the audience is left mesmerized and can empathize with Klara, who awakes from her magical dream a changed young woman, transformed by the emotional, sensory, and imaginary depths and heights she, and we along with her, got to experience in her surrealistic dream. Her magical journey not only allows us to dream and escape, but to experience her coming of age story, full of longing, hope, love, courage, skill, beauty, kindness, and community, along with her. No wonder we want to keep coming back into the world of that dream every year around Christmas time.