Before the 1950’s a family in the U.S might go to church to celebrate Christmas. They would shop in department stores, sing Christmas carols, and decorate the Christmas tree. What they didn’t do before 1954 is have dreams of the sugar plum fairy, include a Nutcracker doll in their Christmas displays or go to the theatre to see The Nutcracker.
According to Time Magazine, “The Nutcracker is a decidedly American phenomenon.” And it happened in the last 60 years. According to The Moscow Ballet, the New York City Ballet’s co-founder George Balanchine introduced his version of the Nutcracker to America in 1954. The Nutcracker is a two-part ballet that has undergone many transformations through its history. The mix of the music by the classical composer, Peter llyich Tchaikovsky and the story adapted by Alexandre Dumas Père, makes this ballet the classic it is today.
According to the Connecticut Concert Ballet, The Nutcracker was first performed on December 5, 1892 at the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Critiques proclaimed the Nutcracker a flop. George Balanchine re choreographed the Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet in 1954. According to the Connecticut City Ballet, “The modern popularity and association of the Nutcracker with the holiday season is most credited to the great ballet director and choreographer George Balanchine.
Today almost all ballet companies produce an annual Nutcracker Ballet. According to The Wall Street Journal, larger companies have been known to pump more than one million dollars into their lavish productions. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nutcracker in 1989 accounted for 28 percent of the total ticket income of $12.7 million for the New York City Ballet.
To maximize income, the companies usually charge more for the Nutcracker than for other productions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the New York City Ballet charges a top rate of $250 for a ticket.
Traditionally the Nutcracker incorporates children as well as professional ballerinas in their productions to create a diverse performance for all types of audiences. According to the New York City Ballet, “The popularity of the ballet is immense and it provides an unforgettable spark to everyone’s holiday season.”
The following pieces will explore the Nutcracker through working professional’s viewpoints as well as well as former ballerinas and current ballet dancers.
Breaking the Pointe
Brittney Deptuch started dancing ballet when she was 14 years old. She juggled school and ballet until her sophomore year of high school when she decided to commit all of her time to dance and receive her GED.
Deptuch, 19, is a trainee at the Eugene Ballet Academy. Training with the Eugene Ballet Company and dancing at the top of the Eugene Youth Ballet is the last step to being hired for a professional ballet company.
Deptuch says she loves performing more than any other part of ballet, and it comes natural to her. She hopes her drive for competition, gregarious personality, and ease of performing will land her a spot in a ballet company soon.
Many dancers at the University of Oregon grew up dancing with ballet schools that made the Nutcracker an annual production. The University of Oregon does not perform the Nutcracker because it has a modern based dance curriculum. But now, the mention of the Nutcracker is a nostalgic experience for most modern dancers. As adults amid the sugarplums, pointe shoes and countless rehearsals lie memories too precious to forget.
Cecilia Berghall, a junior dance major at the University of Oregon says, “When I hear ‘The Nutcracker,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s winter time!’” She adds, “It’s a tradition, like a pumpkin spice latte. People look forward to it.”
She says that her dancer friends can’t stand the music when they hear it. She believes this is because the Lake Oswego Academy of Dance didn’t ever perform the whole show; they just did abridged portions of the full Nutcracker.
Berghall says traveling with these abridged Nutcrackers was fulfilling. Her favorite place to perform was at retirement homes because the older folks look forward to it the most. The wildest place they performed was at Zoo Lights at the Oregon Zoo on the cafeteria floor. She says, “You are trying to put 11 dancers doing a ballet in a 6 by 6 area… you just have to make it work.”
Megan Duling performed in a full production of the show with the Sangre de Cristo Ballet in Pueblo, COLO., for 10 years. She is now a junior dance major at the UO. She explains what it feels like to hear the music: “Now, because I don’t do it anymore, it makes me miss the Nutcracker but at the same time there is that little part of me that’s like ‘turn it off, turn it off.’”
Duling’s school performed the same full production of the Nutcracker every year. She said she got to dance new main roles, but a scene such as the snow scene was the same choreography and dancers.
For snow scene rehearsal she says her teacher would show up, put on the music, and say, ‘Let’s do this!’ They all remembered the choreography year to year.
During one performance, the music director accidently hit ‘stop’ during the snow scene. All the dancers kept dancing in perfect timing. The music director actually sped up the music and found where the girls were. And the show went on.
Liz Jones performed in the Nutcracker for seven years in Woodland Park, Colo, and is another junior dance major at the UO, “My feelings are mostly sentimental now,” she says, “but closer to when I performed I had to change to music immediately when a song came on.”
Jones’ school only did abridged excerpts from the Nutcracker and performed at community events and retirement homes. “We did a swing version of the Nutcracker to Duke Ellington,” she says those spaces weren’t always optimal for ballet: “We performed it at the mall, and I had the candy cane solo. The solo was on pointe and the stage was carpet. I almost fell so many times!”
Xander Berenstein (see profile following this piece to read more about Berenstein’s experience in the Nutcracker) is a trainee at the Eugene Ballet Company and has finished his first season performing in the Nutcracker but has been both watching and involved in the theater community of Eugene his whole life.
He remembers when real blood was shed on stage. When the Eugene Ballet Company was performing the Nutcracker a few years back he says Takeru Anzai was fighting in the mouse scene as the Nutcracker. His hand got cut pretty badly in an accident, and there was a lot of blood. Xander says, “I remember Suzanne Haag in her white dress with blood all over it, but the show had to go on, so they had to keep dancing.”
The First Nutcracker of Hundreds
Xander Berenstein finishes dancing the Nutcracker at the Eugene Public Library. He quickly changes into a different costume in the cramped bathroom and finally bows as his first character role of Drosselmeyer. Drosselmeyer is the mysterious uncle who gives Clara the Nutcracker.
Sara Lambordi, the artistic director of the Eugene Youth Ballet, starts introducing the ballet dancers to the young audience. A small child expectantly raises a hand high in the air. When called on, the child says, “Why didn’t the Mouse King bow? Who is the Mouse King?!”
Lombardi says, “Will the Mouse King please step forward?”
Berenstein steps forward and takes a small bow. The child squeals and laughs, surprised. Berenstein smiles, pleased with the magic that costumes provide for children.
In fact, Lombardi could have asked him to bow for Drossolmyer, Mouse King, or the Reed Flute because Berenstein played all the male roles in the EYB’s production of the Nutcracker this year.
Though Berenstein considers himself a born performer, his father is a mathematician and his mother also has a science background. After being hooked into ballet by friends attending free boys classes at the Oregon City Ballet, Berenstein moved to the Eugene Ballet Academy. He fell in love with the formal ballet curriculum.
He announced that he wanted to be a professional ballet dancer to his family when he was 18, only one year after he began dancing ballet. His parents were shocked but are now supportive. Berenstein was recently accepted into the trainee program at the Eugene Ballet Academy.
Berenstein performed in 20 to 30 Nutcrackers this season in libraries, retirement homes and elementary schools, as well as on the Hult Center stage. He played all the male roles in EYB’s production: Drosselmeyer, the mouse king, and reed flute. Because he was the only male they decided to not include the role of the Nutcracker in the production. He played a smaller role in the professional performance of the Nutcracker with the Eugene Ballet Company.
In the dance of the Reeds, Berenstein says, he got to dance full out and perform lifts with some of the female dancers. He wore a costume with red velvety sleeves and with sparkly sequins on his shirt. Now all the girls refer to him as ‘Sparkles’. He laughs about the nickname fondly.
Berenstein says he was very excited about his first principal role but says, “After the 15th performance, it’s kind of like the high turns into a, ‘How many more Nutcrackers do we have?’”
When Berenstein would get to the performance venue, he says the girls would go to their dressing room and he would have to find his own way.
“It was doubly isolating because I was the only guy and the only one that had graduated high school,” Berenstein says.
Although sometimes it was challenging, he says he felt like he belonged on stage when he was performing. He adds, “[Dancers] can do the tendus, pirouettes and degages and all that, but it all means nothing if you can’t tie it together and act a role at the same time.” He says playing a principal role in a classic ballet was a turning point in his career.
Berenstein predicts he will have to retire at the age of 30 when he will either become a veterinarian or be a translator. He is taking classes at the University of Oregon on the side in preparation for life after dance. Berenstein says, “Yes I did a lot of Nutcrackers. But expect I will do a lot more.” He says the average ballet dancer must perform in hundreds or thousands Nutcrackers in their lives.
For now Berenstein seems happy working in the ballet supply store attached to the Eugene Ballet Academy. This helps him pay for his classes.
A young ballerina, no more than 10 years old, walks into the store and smiles at Berenstein. She turns around to face away from him expectantly. He pokes her perfect ballet bun, saying “boop!”
She laughs at him, and he beams back.
She walks away saying, “Bye, Sparkles!”
Q & A With Kasandra Gruener
Kasandra Gruener is the Managing Director of Education and Outreach at the Oregon Ballet Theatre. She supervises eleven programs for community outreach that caters to both young people and adults. She is a teaching artist and modern dancer.
Q: Is The Nutcracker part of the outreach programs for the Oregon Ballet Theatre?
A: Of course, our company does Nutcracker, so during the school year when we go out to schools we incorporate aspects of Nutcracker in our work. We tell the story, bring costumes, show pointe shoes and talk about roles and right of passage within the Nutcracker.
[The] behavioral organizations that help folks who are having rough times, we match them up with tickets. We provided over 1,200 tickets last year to people that might otherwise not be able to go to Nutcracker. We do that type of community outreach to get people to see something that is a special tradition that time of year.
Q: Did your family go see the Nutcracker when you were growing up?
A: No, actually my family couldn’t afford to go see live ballet when I was a kid, and I didn’t live in a city where it was right there. I personally got hooked to ballet by other means. I fell in love with Romeo and Juliet.
Q: Do you think the Nutcracker is an integral part of the OBT’s financial stability?
A: If you just look at the number of performances we do, you will definitely say ‘yes’, it obviously is. We do 16 shows. We do those in a hall that seats 2,800. We don’t sell out every night, but we do have a good-sized house each night. It has a strong financial relationship to our company, allowing us to do other reparatory work other times of the year.
We have a very different subscription base for the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is interesting to families and a broader range of individuals. We have an audience that is interested in both sides of this ballet world: traditional ballets and new contemporary ballets.
Q: Could the Oregon Ballet Theater operate without the Nutcracker?
A: The Nutcracker requires a certain size of dance company, so that being said, if a company chose not to do the Nutcracker then it would then make a decision as to what size of company it was going to be. We happen to do Balanchine’s Nutcracker at the moment, which requires a certain number of dancers to be responsible to the ballet. Cutting the nutcracker would mean cutting off a certain arm of your company. I can’t imagine OBT would decide to do that. It wouldn’t be a logical thing.
Q: Do you see how children change the first time they perform in the Nutcracker?
A: The thing that is really interesting about how things work here with Nutcracker is that children have little itty bitty roles: the angels, then the party children then the central role of the prince and Marie.There is a growing-up into the roles. And if they keep dancing the girls get to possibly do snow flakes or flowers.
There are various degrees of involvement in The Nutcracker. If they don’t get to do a role this year they are waiting for the next year. You know, it’s like a rite of passage. They are hoping to get to that next thing and they feel a great deal of respect for the roles. I was talking to some of the apprentices about another ballet and what it feels like to dance in a ballet that is 75 years old, or iconic. They said they feel it is an honor to continue this piece of work. I think it’s meaningful to young people to have something to keep working towards, going to the next level.