By Steve Sucato
When it comes to Christmas holiday season entertainment in the U.S., The Nutcracker ballet ranks high on the list. The magical tale of a young girl who dreams of a heroic handsome prince that whisks her off to a land of sweets is a favorite of children and adults alike. So when former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Patricia Barker took over as artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet Company in 2010, mounting a new Nutcracker production to replace the 30-year-old production the company had been doing was at the top of her to do list.
For most ballet companies, The Nutcracker is the only real cash cow in their repertory and is their most visible calling card within their community and beyond. For Barker, who in the past four years has taken Grand Rapids Ballet Company from a regional mainstay to a nationally recognized company with grand aspirations, that meant thinking big when it came to a new Nutcracker production.
The choreographic origins of the company’s current Nutcracker production are somewhat murky says Barker. One thing she did know was that since it debuted in the early 1980’s, the production had been altered numerous times and the sets and costumes were falling apart.
“We needed something new that was unique for us,” says Barker. “Something that represents this company now and the Grand Rapids community and puts our stamp on the arts in Michigan.”
What better way to make that kind of a statement than with a new million dollar Nutcracker production featuring the creative talents of Grand Rapids’ favorite son Chris Van Allsburg, The Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and author of “The Polar Express” and “Jumanji” to collaborate on the set design with Tony Award-winning (Bernstein’s “Candide,” Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and “Wicked”) stage designer Eugene Lee. Add to them Award-winning choreographer Val Caniparoli, who has created ballets for Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and the creative talents of Barker, and you have the formidable team behind one of the most anticipated new Nutcracker productions since perhaps Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for American Ballet Theatre in 2010.
For this new production that world-premieres December 12 at Grand Rapids’ DeVos Performance Hall and runs through December 21, Barker says she used as a guidepost another Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and author’s vision of The Nutcracker ballet; that of Maurice Sendak. The “Where the Wild Things Are” author collaborated on the design for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 1983 Nutcracker choreographed by Kent Stowell of which Barker starred in the 1986 movie adaptation; Nutcracker: The Motion Picture. That production bids farewell this December after 31-years in PNB’s repertory.
Barker says she approached Sendak for advice and to introduce her to friend Van Allsburg in 2012. Sendak’s untimely death a couple of weeks later left Barker to approach Van Allsburg on her own about the project, which at first Van Allsburg was reluctant to take on saying in a recent interview: “It’s intimidating for an artist to walk down a path so well-trod.”
One thing working in Barker’s favor was that Van Allsburg and family had their own history with The Nutcracker ballet. His daughter danced in Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island’s production for many years, even performing the lead role of Clara. That history, along with some prodding from wife Lisa and others convinced Van Allsburg to join the project.
Van Allsburg says his illustrations/designs for the Grand Rapids production owe something to his daughter and the many years attending Nutcracker ballet performances.
A friend of Van Allsburg’s, set designer Eugene Lee was brought on board to realize Van Allsburg and Barker’s vision of the ballet’s design with an eye on touring the production.
“It was a give and take on the design,” says Barker. “Each of us got and had to give in on certain things we wanted. What audiences will see is a well thought out production full of details.”
The last piece of the puzzle then was selecting who would choreograph the ballet. Barker says Caniparoli was her first and only choice. She had worked with him and danced in his ballets in the past. “His talents in telling a story are incredible,” says Barker.
It was also a bonus for Barker, who had never mounted a production for this enormity, that Caniparoli had two prior Nutcracker productions under his belt (Cincinnati Ballet’s in 2001 and Louisville Ballet’s in 2009) so he knew the ins and outs of organizing and scheduling as well as the timing of music.
“How many choreographers have done three different versions of the ballet? Each time I do one I think I am getting better at it,” says Caniparoli.
Like the Sendak/Stowell production, Barker says she looked to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” to develop the storyline. She turned to Austrian husband and former dancer Michael Auer who reads and speaks fluent German for help in reading Hoffmann’s original German text. Auer’s family had a German language version of the “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” handed down from his great great grandmother that he, his mother, and Barker read and took notes from. “The depth of the story is enormous,” says Barker.
The result is a ballet version that is pretty true to the Hoffmann tale but retains much of what Barker loves in a Nutcracker production.
“There are many great Nutcracker productions out there,” says Barker. “As long as it tells a story you can follow from beginning to end, takes you on a journey, teaches you something, and you leave the theater smiling and wanting to come back and see it again, that is when you have done a great job with a Nutcracker ballet. That is what I wanted to create for Grand Rapids Ballet.”
The ballet is set during the Regency era in the early 1800’s. It takes place Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum family home in Vienna. As in Sendak/Stowell production and countless others, Barker chose to go with the story’s protagonist Clara (Marie, in the original version) as a young girl in the ballet’s first act that is then transformed into an adult dancer after the battle scene.
For the most part though, the familiar story will unfold as many traditional ballet versions of “The Nutcracker” do.
One thing Barker says Sendak implored her not to do in her new Nutcracker was to let Clara dream of a handsome prince and then let the Sugar Plum Fairy dance with him. “No girl would ever dream of a handsome prince and let him dance with somebody else,” says Barker.
Another thing Barker wanted this production to steer clear of was gratuitous humor.
“It’s not a comedic ballet. There can be humor in it, which there is in this version, but the battle scene is a real battle,” says Barker. “Clara is fighting for the Nutcracker’s life.”
The ballet’s choreographic style is classically based says Caniparoli. “The challenge for me is to make it fresh while retaining that classical base and adding in my style,” says Caniparoli. “You want to be innovative but not make it crazy. It has to appeal to children and adults alike and has to last year after year.”
Like Barker with the Sendak/Stowell production, Caniparoli says he looked to his past and the familiar Christensen brothers’ Nutcracker, first staged in 1944 for San Francisco Ballet that he had been a part of as a dancer. That along with the two prior versions of the Nutcracker he choreographed provided inspiration for his work on GRBC’s new production.
Caniparoli says he came into the creative process after most of the designs for the ballet had been completed. That, he says, helped shape some of his choreographic choices, especially in the transitions between scenes. But for the most part the former music major says Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet was the most important guide in his choreography.
The Grand Rapids Symphony will once again join forces with GRBC and play the score live at all of The Nutcracker performances.
The production’s large cast will feature all 32 of GRBC’s company members, apprentices and trainees along with a bevy of students from the Grand Rapids Ballet School.
As for the differences in working with professional dancers and students, Caniparoli says: “My motto is challenge the students from the beginning and make them come up to a level. Even if they don’t get it the first year, they will start getting it. I never want to dumb things down. I want their challenge to match that of the professionals in many ways.”
While classically based, Caniparoli says the popular “Snow” scene and the “Waltz of the Flowers” will have a romantic feel to them. Audiences can also expect a bit of magic in the form of onstage illusions such as the transformation from young Clara to the adult “Dream Clara”.
With all new sets, costumes and choreography from such a talented team, it is safe to say Grand Rapids Ballet’s new The Nutcracker production will be the stuff new family traditions and childhood memories will be made of.
Says Barker: “We have a great Nutcracker on our hands.”
Grand Rapids Ballet presents the world-premiere of The Nutcracker, 7:30 p.m., Dec. 12-13 and Dec. 19-20; 2 p.m., Dec. 13-14 and Dec. 20-21. DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW., Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets: $20-54. (616) 454-4771, grballet.org or Ticketmaster.
On Dec. 11 Grand Rapids Ballet will also present The Nutcracker Premiere Gala benefiting Hospice of Michigan at Steelcase Ballroom, DeVos Place. Tickets: $150-250. Contact Kyle Amanda Dutkiewicz at (616) 454-4771 ext. 11 or firstname.lastname@example.org.