As a ballet, The Nutcracker stands alone. On paper, it’s classical and traditional, yet to succeed — not to mention sell tickets — a production must offer big fun for the whole family. We’re talking about creating holiday memories here … and perhaps even building broader ballet audiences.
Cincinnati Ballet’s much-ballyhooed new Nutcracker production that premiered just last year strikes a delightful balance between light family fare and serious technical ballet. It also finds that sweet spot between imagination and reality, both onstage and behind the scenes.
“You do it every year, so you want to be entertained,” says Victoria Morgan, the Ballet’s artistic director and CEO. “I mean, not only do the dancers want to be entertained, but we want to be entertained; we watch every show.”
And it is a huge, ambitious production in every sense. There are 80 children in each show’s cast, not to mention approximately 200 costumes, 20 sets and 15 scenes. A team of nine dressers backstage assists with some very intricate costumes designed by the celebrated Broadway costume designer Carrie Robbins.
Cincinnati Ballet’s Wardrobe Mistress Diana Adams, who’s been designing and constructing costumes for the company for some 41 years, says there are a lot of little pieces to everything.
“You’ve got the baby chicks,” she says, by way of a children’s costume example. “Well, they have bloomers, they have a pod and they have a sleeve, they have an overcover, they have a head and a tail. All of it has to get hooked on and snapped on and the strings pulled, and then they have to get them all out onstage!”
Adams says that they’ve “tweaked and re-tweaked things” quite a bit this year — the female Arabian costume, for instance, now has pantaloons along with some more embellishments. She’s also created a couple of new costumes.
In Morgan’s dual role as both the choreographer and artistic director, she relishes having the rare opportunity to revisit the production as a whole.
“It is so nice because the pressure of the opening night, and bringing so many elements together, it’s a little mortifying,” she says. “There’s just so much to think about: the magic, the extras, the kids and the props and the structure of how those transitions are going to happen.”
Having the chance to watch last year’s shows on video gave Morgan some helpful fresh perspective.
As a result, this year’s production brings revisions to choreography and even characters.
“I just have this habit of feeling like something is never done. And so, you just keep at it,” Morgan says. “There’s never a time where you sit back and say, ‘Oh, now it’s perfect.’”
Interestingly, poodles play a significant role in the changes.
Principal Dancer Cervilio Amador will premier a new role during the second weekend of the Nutcracker run: Mirlipoo Soloist — basically, a lead dancing poodle — a part that up to his debut has been only danced by females. Morgan and Amador put it together quickly, in about a week with just a couple of rehearsals, but not quite fast enough to be ready for opening night.
Amador, who is also dancing Snow King and Cotton Candy Cavalier roles, says, “It was funny — when (Morgan) first presented the idea to me, I thought, ‘Uh, oh; it’s a girl’s dance.’ But after working on it, I think it’s super cute. She made it playful, but still with technique.”
Speaking of playfulness, there’s a unique little character, Clara’s pet poodle that was inspired by Morgan’s own beloved real-life toy poodle (and sometimes confidante), Teddy Mo. Last year, Clara’s little poodle sidekick was nearly overshadowed by the onstage activity, but this year it’s been rendered more visible and even more poodle-like.
Clearly, Morgan knows how to tap into a childlike frame of mind and sensibility.
“Nutcracker is always that dilemma: How much is real? How much is a dream?” Morgan says. “How much of it is the real conversation with your poodle comrade and how much of it is just your imagination? Because kids have so much imagination, and it’s so easy for them to do that — for them to imagine it to be true.”
Children not only play an important role onstage, but also did so offstage during the production’s development. Morgan, who doesn’t have children, describes how much they influenced the production directly, if inadvertently.
“To be in rehearsal with a roomful of kids! I so love their spontaneity and I love how off-the-wall and uninhibited they are, and I used all kinds of things from rehearsal,” she says.
She drew on elements of their natural behavior — their picking on each other, pretending to cry and so on — while they thought she wasn’t looking.
“It was a challenge and a delicate balance to keep the room under control, but also to (be able to) use their individuality and personality as a part of forming the basis of some of the work was a delightful surprise,” Morgan says.
In a broader sense, that’s part of Nutcracker’s overall balancing act — not to mention what makes it appealing for all ages. Morgan says she’s really proud of having balanced the formality and strictness of classical ballet with personality and whimsy in this show.
“The children in the work were a huge part of bringing that idea to the forefront,” she says.
“It felt satisfying to feel like there’s a nice balance between the way they are. … Now we’re dancing with the guys and now we’re bowing. But then when the presents come out, ‘Yahoo!’ They break down and become kids again.”
Adams describes how everyone keeps talking about the magic of this production, and with good reason.
“I’ve been here for all the (Ballet’s) Nutcracker (productions) and this one is by far the brightest and perkiest production we’d had in a long time,” she says. “And it’s good for the kids. They’re the ones we need to keep wanting to come and see this, because they’re the future audiences.”
By all accounts, the enduring, classic Nutcracker has a bright present — and future — in the hands of Cincinnati Ballet.
Cincinnati Ballet presents THE NUTCRACKER at the Aronoff Center through Dec. 23. Tickets: 513-621-5282 or cballet.org.