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Cracking The Nut: How A Russian Ballet Conquered America (And North Texas)
by Jerome Weeks 4 Dec 2014

Only in America: This holiday season there are nearly 20 different production of The Nutcracker ballet in North Texas. No other holiday show comes close. So — why?

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Tuzer Nutcracker 1editThe Tuzer Ballet’s Nutcracker. Andie Riley is in white, while the fairies are Louise Nisperos, Nadine Reynolds, Emma Zamutt and Marie Lawrence. Photo credit: Sharon Bradford

In North Texas this season, there are nearly twenty different productions of The Nutcracker ballet — from lavish stagings like the Texas Ballet Theater‘s to high school performances and even a ‘prequel’ to the Nutcracker. No other live holiday show comes close to that kind of popularity, not The Messiah, not A Christmas Carol. And outside the US, no other country treats The Nutcracker quite like this.

So KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks, why?


The quick answer? The Nutcracker is a cash cow for dance companies and their schools. In the late ‘80s in North Texas, Mark-Brian Sonna used to dance professionally as a guest artist in The Nutcracker. Or actually, in Nutcrackers, plural. He’d dance for one company one weekend, another the next week, then a third – and so on from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

“The best thing,” he says, “about the Nutcracker for ballet companies – especially because there’s usually a school attached to a ballet company – is you need a lot of a kids. And this is a way to get even your toddlers to perform. So it’s a money-making venture for the companies, it’s a money-making venture for the schools and the parents get to see their kids perform on stage. I mean, it’s a perfect trifecta.”

But saying the Nutcracker’s popular because it’s profitable begs the question: How did it get popular? How did this odd, Russian-borrowed-from-the-German fairy tale of dancing flowers, a dreaming girl and a prince-turned-kitchen-implement-attacked-by-rats become embraced by Americans? Even Americans who never attend a single ballet the rest of the year?

Other than vodka and AK-47s, no Russian export has been quite so embraced.

Yet when it premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, The Nutcracker was a failure — the aristocratic fad for fairy-tale-based ballets seemed to be fading. Only later, when composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky extracted a suite from the ballet, was the music a success.  That’s mostly what remained – like a glittery memory of the Imperial Court.

Most famously, Walt Disney picked up The Nutcracker Suite for 1940’s Fantasia — although amid all his dancing sprites and dancing fish and dancing leaves, the only things remotely Russian were the furry-capped thistles dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Trepak, a Ukranian folk dance.

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The New York City Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker’ choreographed by George Balanchine marks its 60th year this year

Even so, two children of Russia sold the dances to America in a big way. In her superlative history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans says that choreographer George Balanchine was prompted by his own nostalgic memories of St. Petersburg to create a Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet in 1954. The company is celebrating its 60th year with the production, having revived it again this month. And what made Balanchine’s nostalgia so influential throughout America, Homans writes, was the CBS broadcast of his ballet in 1958.

Danielle Georgiou writes about dance and runs her own Dallas company, the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. Balanchine’s Nutcracker, she says, “came out at the right time” — just as TV was truly reaching a mass audience, during the Cold War when America was importing European talents who were transforming the country’s arts scene and just when many Americans were seeking greater cultural sophistication than their parents. “And I think that Balanchine’s was just very appropriate for America. I think coming over and bringing his European heritage to New York and living that American life made for this very interesting blend.”

The blend of Russian classical training with American clarity and athleticism made The Nutcracker appealing to a TV audience of young baby boomers and their parents. Balanchine also gave the ballet an epic, story-book splendor while making it darker, less sugary (the toymaker-uncle Drosselmeyer is distinctly creepy) and more challenging physically for the performers. This TV transformation of a flop into a warm-and-fuzzy family holiday classic was not unique to The Nutcracker. The same thing happened at roughly the same time to It’s a Wonderful Life. The Jimmy Stewart film bombed at the box office in 1946, but it was rediscovered the next decade by millions of Americans on television, becoming a Christmas favorite — as a relentlessly repeated broadcast schedule filler.

All of which means that one of the fuels for The Nutcracker’s appeal today has been memories of our own childhoods, perhaps of those first dance lessons our mothers dragged us to. However thin and faded and second-hand, what we’re experiencing — oddly enough — is nostalgia for another person’s nostalgic fantasy of a lost czarist Russia.

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Mark-Brian Sonna, center, in ‘The Beulahville Baptist Book Club Presents: A Bur-less-Que Nutcracker.’

The second Russian who boosted The Nutcracker was Mikahil Baryshnikov. In 1977, he choreographed and starred in the TV broadcast of the American Ballet Theater production directed by Herbert Ross — which made the ballet’s dancing more intricate and physical. In his hands (and feet), the prince / Nutcracker role had become a truly bravura achievement.

But ballet companies have other, more practical reasons for liking their holiday paycheck. “Honestly, as a dancer, it’s a very easy ballet,” says Mark-Brian Sonna. “It’s short. You don’t dance much in the first act. It’s not the artistic challenge that you have with Swan Lake or Giselle, the emotional depth. But it’s fun to watch. It’s a showstopper ballet. It’s the Vegas show of ballets.”

All the separate splashy dance numbers mean that young audience members are less likely to get bored. I mean, what other ballet has a battle between dancing toys and dancing mice? And those same splashy dance numbers with their different costumes and ethnic stereotypes — Russians and Arabians, soldiers and sugar plum fairies — let choreographers get inventive with interpretations. The Texas Ballet Theater offers a spoofish “Nutty Nutcracker.” Mark Brian-Sonna even has written, directed and stars in a scrappy little burlesque version in Addison that’s run for eight years now — with its low-brow jokes (the fact his character’s name is Dickey should tell you all you need to know) and bumps ‘n’ grinds that fit Tchaikovsky’s music surprisingly easily.

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Danielle Georgiou with Contemporary Ballet Dallas

“You can just make your little, you know, your little spin on this, your little spin on that,” says Patrica Tuzer. “So – every single show is so different.” Tuzer co-founded the Tuzer Ballet in Richardson in 1984 with her husband, Tanju Tuzer — back when the only other Nutcracker around was the (now-defunct) Dallas Ballet’s. In the 30 years they’ve staged it, the Tuzers’ Nutcracker has grown to include as many as 50 performers – with Tanju Tuzer still appearing as Drosselmeyer. This month, their Nutcracker is one of four being offered – just at the Eisemann Center.

Ironically, for all its path-breaking influence, Balanchine’s Nutcracker is rarely done in North Texas — it doesn’t include as many children (there goes that income stream) and it demands more from the dancers (and the budget). Instead, each company generally pieces together its own version. Danielle Georgiou says, seeing so many Nutcrackers over the years – from the saccharine to the sumptuous – has made it the ballet she loves to hate. Yet she performed in it when she was seven, and she can still recall the wonder she felt as a little girl.

“There’s always a part of me,” she says, “that was always like, man, that would be just so great to be a princess for a day. Which is an antiquated way of thinking and when people hear me say it, they’re like, ‘There’s no way you want to be a princess for a day.’

“But just to have magic surround you. That’s the beauty of The Nutcracker for me. And you don’t see a lot of magic anymore — at least, not on stage.”

 

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  • Suzanne Calvin

    It may be a bit strong to describe the original production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as an abject failure; however, it was unquestionably the “B Side” at its St. Petersburg premiere. The hit of the evening was the other offering on that double bill: “Iolanta,” with a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, based on a Danish fairy tale, “King Rene’s Daughter.” If you would be interested in recreating that experience for comparison purposes, enjoy “The Nutcracker” now and come back to the Winspear in the spring to see the Dallas Opera’s new production of “Iolanta” conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and staged by director Christian Rath. Consider it a double bill with a very, very long intermission.

  • Suzanne Calvin

    It may be a bit strong to describe the original production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as an abject failure; however, it was unquestionably the “B Side” at its St. Petersburg premiere. The hit of the evening was the other offering on that double bill: “Iolanta,” with a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, based on a Danish fairy tale, “King Rene’s Daughter.” If you would be interested in recreating that experience for comparison purposes, enjoy “The Nutcracker” now and come back to the Winspear in the spring to see the Dallas Opera’s new production of “Iolanta” conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and staged by director Christian Rath. Consider it a double bill with a very, very long intermission.

  • JeromeWeeks

    We can debate the nuances between a “failure” and an “abject failure.” But here’s Jennifer Homans in ‘Apollo’s Angels’:

    “Soon after the ballet went into rehearsal, however, Petipa [the original choreographer] fell ill and was forced to turn over his duties to his second-in-command, the ballet master Lev Ivanov. The end result was a patchwork of dances, probably mostly by Ivanov with additional contributions from the dancer Alexander Shiryaev. When the ballet premiered in 1892 prominent critics dismissed it as just another “feerie” [fairy ballet] calling it an ‘insult’ to the Imperial Theater and “death for the company.” And indeed – ironically, in view of its iconic status today – the ballet had only limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertory.”

    I don’t know. “A patchwork.” Prominent critics dismissing it as an “insult” and “death to the company.” Limited public appeal? Falling out of the repertory?

    I’m not sure what more indications of failure one could have for an Imperial ballet in St. Petersburg in 1892. Enforced serfdom for everyone involved?

    • Suzanne Calvin

      An “insult” and “death to the company” is, to a certain extent, business as usual in the near-hysteria of nineteenth-century theater criticism. Enforced serfdom certainly would have hinted at the precise extent of imperial displeasure. But, yes, I’ll concede your point. A flop is a flop, even when written in Cyrillic.

  • JeromeWeeks

    We can debate the nuances between a “failure” and an “abject failure.” But here’s Jennifer Homans in ‘Apollo’s Angels’:

    “Soon after the ballet went into rehearsal, however, Petipa [the original choreographer] fell ill and was forced to turn over his duties to his second-in-command, the ballet master Lev Ivanov. The end result was a patchwork of dances, probably mostly by Ivanov with additional contributions from the dancer Alexander Shiryaev. When the ballet premiered in 1892 prominent critics dismissed it as just another “feerie” [fairy ballet] calling it an ‘insult’ to the Imperial Theater and “death for the company. And indeed — ironically, in view of its iconic status today — the ballet had only limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertory.”

    I don’t know. “A patchwork.” Prominent critics dismissing it as an “insult” and “death to the company.” Limited public appeal? Falling out of the repertory?

    I’m not sure what more indications of failure one could have for an Imperial ballet in St. Petersburg in 1892. Enforced serfdom for everyone involved?

    • Suzanne Calvin

      An “insult” and “death to the company” is, to a certain extent, business as usual in the near-hysteria of nineteenth-century theater criticism. Enforced serfdom certainly would have hinted at the precise extent of imperial displeasure. But, yes, I’ll concede your point. A flop is a flop, even when written in Cyrillic.