Pennsylvania Ballet: Holiday Memories Are Reborn with The Nutcracker

Classic Arts Features   Pennsylvania Ballet: Holiday Memories Are Reborn with The Nutcracker
An intangible spirit of holiday cheer pervades the atmosphere every December as the Academy of Music hosts Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, playing this year through Dec. 31.

The warm glow of the iconic gas lamps that adorn the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street invite you in. The fantastic score, colorful characters, and extraordinary dancing mesmerize you. Cherished memories, of the first time you saw The Nutcracker or the first time you saw it through a child's eyes keeps you coming back year after year. "It's a tradition," says Barbara Weisberger, who first introduced The Nutcracker to Philadelphia audiences 40 years ago.

"When the Haas Foundation (now The William Penn Foundation) awarded us a very generous grant," Weisberger continues, "I saw there was potential to appeal to audiences with The Nutcracker. It has a universal theme of family, elements of fantasy, remarkable music, and the notion that dreams do come true: how could you miss? "

The story by E.T.A. Hoffman, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," is a familiar one that begins on Christmas Eve, as the Stahlbaum family and their guests gather in the parlor for a jubilant holiday celebration. The eccentric Herr Drosselmeyer arrives and enthralls the children with his antics. He presents Marie with a beautiful wooden Nutcracker doll, which breaks in a scuffle with her brother. After the party winds down and the house is silent, Drosselmeyer mends the doll and the magic begins. The grand tree begins to grow beyond the proscenium, the snow begins to fall, and Marie and her Nutcracker Prince are carried away to the Land of the Sweets where delectable dances are performed for the pair. The Dew Drop Fairy, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Candy Canes, the Marzipan Sherperdesses, Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles, the Waltz of the Flowers, and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier entertain Marie and her Prince. After all the dances in the Land of the Sweets have concluded, they sail off into the sunset on a gilded boat as Tschaikovsky's memorable music reaches its rousing finish.

In 1891, the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa commissioned Tschaikovsky to write the suites for The Nutcracker ballet. The first public showing took place the following year at the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia. The Nutcracker made its way to Western Europe in the 1930's and to America by 1940. Today it is a holiday mainstay that has enjoyed much commercial success, with innumerable retellings, both onstage and in pop culture. But by 1968 Balanchine's version had become the standard, having had its premiere by New York City Ballet 14 years earlier to critical and audience acclaim.

Balanchine had been a continued source of support for the emerging Pennsylvania Company, but the grandeur and scope of the first act of his Nutcracker seemed far too great a feat for the young Company. "I wanted something more intimate," remembers Weisberger, "of course, we always had Balanchine's second act with its demanding divertissements; but we had a wonderful Argentinian choreographer, Oswaldo Riofrancos, create a first act that was fantastically theatrical, full of humor, life, and great characters. My dear friend Robert Rodham brought his vision of the glistening snow scene to life for us: it was our idea of this magical thing that happened. That production will always hold a special place in my heart. Looking back, I realize it wasn't all that grand, but it was authentic and really indicative of where the Company was at the time."

Pennsylvania Ballet has come a long way since then. In 1987 the Company began performing Balanchine's full-length version with a new production that cost $1 million, added a hydraulic tree in 2001, and unveiled a brand new production last year with resounding success. "Adding Balanchine's first act accommodated having children from local dance schools perform for their parents, family and friends, and their peers: it really addresses the spirit of the story and enhances the family aspect of The Nutcracker experience," says Artistic Director Roy Kaiser. "As for the new production, it is just breathtaking: the delicate detail of the costumes and the magnificent sets captivate audiences of all ages from the first few notes of the overture."

Ballet Master Jeff Gribler, who works with the young dancers in the production in the weeks leading up to opening night adds, "It's just so honest: the nervous excitement and pure exhilaration evident on the faces of the children in the production, the friendships they form throughout the rehearsal process, the proud parents that offer their support, and the inspiration the kids find in the Company dancers and they in them, is truly inspiring for me."

The story onstage isn't the only one that contributes to the wonderment of it all. On New Year's Eve in 1999, Angela Sheehan was born after her mother went into labor while enjoying a performance of The Nutcracker, and had to be escorted out of the theater. This year, Angela joins the cast as one of the angels in Act II. Soloist Gabriella Yudenich, whose parents were in Pennsylvania Ballet's first production of The Nutcracker as Principal Dancers, also made her Nutcracker premiere as an angel, when she was just 7 years old. Ian Hussey is now a rising star in the main Company, but years back his princely role seemed like the crowning moment in his career. In 1991, an eight year old Laura Breckenridge made her debut as the soldier bunny. She has gone on to star in the WB television series Related, and recently auditioned for a movie with Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep. With 26 performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, there are plenty of opportunities for new stars to emerge and new traditions to be born.

There are some repertory programs and full-length classics that may not win over all audiences, but with The Nutcracker there's something for everyone. It creates memories that live forever, clear, intact and indestructible. Youngsters identify with the kids in the production, and all the cheerful chaos that ensues with family on Christmas Eve. Adults reminisce about their own childhoods, or merely savor the opportunity to put the holiday rush on hold for an 85-minute spectacle of exquisite costumes and sets, charming characters, masterful choreography and contagious melodies that audiences continue to hum long after the curtain comes down.

Writer Brooke Honeyford is currently Pennsylvania Ballet's Public Relations Manager.

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