By Michael Curry
The Richmond Ballet accompanied by The Virginia Symphony brings its highly acclaimed production of The Nutcracker to Chrysler Hall for the sixth consecutive year, December 7 – 9.
The Nutcracker is to ballet what Handel’s Messiah is to symphony orchestras. Both long time favorites among audiences young and old, these pieces have become pillars of the ballet and orchestral repertoire and are produced annually by companies and orchestras across the country. Not only do these “warhorses” serve as significant revenue producers, they also, perhaps more importantly, serve as powerful introductions to the wonders of their respective art forms and life long inspirations for those experiencing them.
Hailed by The New York Times as one of the best productions of this spectacular ballet in the country, Richmond Ballet’s version is a captivating vision and interpretation of the beloved ballet which was originally choreographed and staged by the legendary Marius Petipa with sumptuous familiar music by Tchaikovsky. This version is staged by Richmond Ballet’s Artistic Director Stoner Winslett and features the 17 professional dancers of the company as well as a huge cast of students from regional ballet schools and studios with live music provided by The Virginia Symphony under the direction of conductor Erin Freeman who is the Ballet’s Resident Conductor.
THE STORY OF THE BALLET
The Nutcracker was given its first performance at the famed Mariinksy Theatre in St., Petersburg in 1892, It is based on a story by E,T,A, Hoffman adapted from Alexander Dumas’ The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The curtain rises on a wonderfully warm and enchanting Christmas Eve scene in which all the children are given presents. As the clock strikes 8, the mysterious figure of Drosselmeyer appears. He is an accomplished and clever toy maker (and, incidentally godfather to our heroine, Clara). He has brought four life- like dolls who then begin dancing to the absolute delight of everyone. When the dolls are put away, Clara and Fritz are very sad but Drosselmeyer produces his piece de resistance – a wooden nutcracker carved into the shape of a man. Clara is enchanted. After every one else has gone to sleep, she returns to check on her magical new toy. At the stroke of midnight, the Christmas tree suddenly begins to grow enormously and mice begin to fill the room. At the same time, the Nutcracker comes to life and Clara is encircled by a raging battle between the gingerbread army and the mice, led by their King. As the mice eat their rivals, the gingerbreads, the Nutcracker leads his army of tin solders and as the Mouse King makes a move to attack the Nutcracker, Clara, terrified, throws her slipper at him. This is just enough to distract him and just long enough for the Nutcracker to stab him,. As the army of mice retreat, the Nutcracker is turned into a handsome prince. He then leads Clara through the pine forest toward his kingdom while snowflakes dance all around them.
As the second act opens, Clara and the Prince arrive in the beautiful Land of Sweets which has been ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in his absence. He tells her the story of how he was saved from the Mouse King by Clara. In honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced with much merriment and high spirits. The Ballet ends with a spectacular dance by all the sweets as the Prince and Clara say goodbye from their sleigh drawn by reindeer.
Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker has become one of his most famous and beloved compositions. Written at the pinnacle of the Imperial Russian Ballet’s success, it is a remarkable collaboration between libretto and music. Petipa and Tchaikowsky worked together on two other legendary “story” ballets – The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (1895); For this ballet, Petipa gave the composer very specific instructions, in some cases even down to the tempo to be used in each section of the score. Even though the original production was not a smashing success – probably because it was paired in a double bill on opening night with an opera, Iolanta, also by Tchaikovsky – the ballet continues to enjoy enormous success worldwide.
THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Celebrating her award winning 35 year tenure as Artistic Director of the Richmond Ballet, Stoner Winslett is a major force in dance in America. She grew up in South Carolina and was enjoying a promising career after studying at the North Carolina School for the Arts and the prestigious School of the American Ballet Theatre. Sadly, due to an injury she had to give up dancing but she certainly did not give up her passion for the dance, becoming one of America’s foremost Directors. Under her direction the Richmond Ballet became the first professional ballet company in the Commonwealth and was named The State Ballet of Virginia in 1990. The company has been a leader in commissioning new works and has premiered more than 70 ballets by 35 choreographers from around the world. These include works by Norfolk’s own Todd Rosenlieb, Jessica Lang, Malcolm Burn and a host of others. Ms. Winslett herself has created numerous highly praised works for her company and she led the company in its hugely well received New York debut at the Joyce Theatre in 2005, returning to the iconic dance venue in 2008, 2010 and 2017. She also directed Richmond Ballet in its international debut in London in 2012 and its first tour to China in 2015. Fulfilling its role as the State Ballet, Stoner continues to guide and oversee the company’s ever growing outreach and educational programs, doing master classes, workshops and residencies in communities across the Commonwealth. The School of The Richmond Ballet now serves more than 900 students each year and features the pioneering community access program called Minds in Motion. Stoner Winslett has been honored with countless awards and accolades at the international, national and state levels. Invited by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (which will appear during the 2019 Virginia Arts Festival ) to join a small group of artistic directors to explore and expand diversity, she has been an integral player in the now world renowned Equity Project which was funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. But she often states with true conviction that her highest honor to date “has been the privilege to work with the talented professionals and dedicated community members who have made a real difference in the world by creating and sustaining the Richmond Ballet”.
In mounting this production of The Nutcracker, Stoner Winslett did extensive research on the original score, noting that “the brilliant choreographer Marius Petipa wrote out the scenario (in French, of course) above the musical score.”. So, the Richmond Ballet’s production is one of the most authentic in which the dance, as she likes to say is “married to the music” and which “tells the story of a little girl and her dream about the Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King”.
The 17 professional dancers in the company are joined this year by no fewer than 110 students from schools in Virginia and North Carolina. Breaking all records, more than 140 students auditioned this year, representing 40 different dance schools. The entire company is joined by choral students from Rosemont (Norfolk Middle School) who will form the Snow Choir in the ballet.
“The Nutcracker is a wonderful phenomenon”, Winslett says with glee. “This is our version of a great three generational event – one sees 6 year old aspiring dancers accompanied by their parents in their 40’s and their grandparents in the 70’s or 80’s,” she adds. “The Nutcracker is a landmark entry event in that it is very often the first ballet experience for thousands of people of all ages who then become avid fans of dance and, in many cases, serious students of ballet”.
The Richmond Ballet’s 35th anniversary season opened with a glittering gala in September followed by the world premiere of a piece by Nicole Haskins and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night earlier this month. The season continues with Nutcracker performances in Norfolk (see below) and then in Richmond December 14 – 23. In February the company will perform Cinderella – the Prokofiev score performed by the Richmond Symphony, February 14-17. March performances feature Figure in the Distance (Tom Mattingly/Philip Glass) and Jose Limon’s famed Moor’s Pavane (with music by Purcell) and then May 7-12 the company performs Summerset (Ron Cunningham/Elgar), and Sweet Bitter Love (Carmen de Lavallade/Bela Flack)
For more information on the Richmond Ballet: www.richmondballet.com
ADDITIONAL EVENTS IN COASTAL VIRGINIA
In addition to the four performances of The Nutcracker in Chrysler Hall, members of the company will reach deep into the community during their residency here. Appearances at an ODU game, book signings, tea parties and more fill out their busy schedule as follows:
Weds. Nov 28 7-9pm: The Russian Bear and Mouse King will make a special appearance on court for the famous Ice Cream and Cake Dance (featuring local students) at the VCU/ODU Basketball Game, Ted Constant Center.
Sat,. Dec, 1 12noon – 4pm. Company members conduct a book reading of The Nutcracker. Sugar cookies and hot cocoa served. Barnes and Noble, Town Center.
Sat. Dec, 8 4.15pm – 5.15pm: Clara’s Tea Party. Come meet Clara and other characters from the Kingdom of Sweets in an elegant tea party. Tickets required (ticketmaster.com)
Sun. Dec 9 2pm – Pupcracker. Come meet adoptable dogs as Richmond Ballet and Virginia Beach SPCA team up for this very special Pupcracker.
The Nutcracker – A Ballet in Two Acts – at Chrysler Hall
The Richmond Ballet with the Virginia Symphony
Friday December 7, 7pm; Saturday December 8, 2pm and 7pm. Sunday December 9, 2pm.
For tickets: www.ticketmaster.com