Tulsa Ballet's 'The Nutcracker' brings new dynamic to traditional performance
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Thursday, December 06, 2012
12/06/12 at 3:24 AM
When fitting ballet costumes, the traditional practice is to alter the costume to fit the individual dancer.
For Tulsa Ballet's newly revised production of "The Nutcracker," that process is being reversed for some of the characters in the ballet.
"We had to make the legs and torsos longer for some of them," Beth Smathers said. "It's just so they could be seen better from the stage."
Smathers is referring, of course, to dolls - a collection of 15 figures that play a small but important role in the first act of Tulsa Ballet's annual holiday ballet.
The 2-foot-tall dolls are presented as gifts to the children attending a family Christmas party. Each doll is dressed in a costume that mirrors the ones worn by characters who will later populate the dreams of a young girl named Marie, as she falls asleep on Christmas Eve.
Smathers, a nationally recognized fiber artist best known for her unique basketry, has worked with Tulsa Ballet's wardrobe department in the past, including the company's 2002 tour to Portugal and the 2003 debut of the ballet's current production of "The Nutcracker."
"It's been awhile, though, since I've worked with dolls," Smathers said. "When I first learned how to sew, back when I was in the first or second grade, I made a lot of doll clothes.
"I think that's why the very first one of these dolls I did was the hardest, because I was kind of learning all over again how to do this," she said. "It got easier as I went along."
The costumes for the dolls aren't anywhere near as detailed as those created by master costume designer Luisa Spinatelli, but Smathers said they are detailed enough to be recognizable.
"When you're trying to tell a story in a ballet, and especially if the audience for this particular ballet will include a lot of children, it's important to make everything as clear as you can," said choreographer Bruce Wells, whom Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini brought to Tulsa to rework portions of the company's "Nutcracker."
"The dolls are there to plant the seed for what is to come," Wells said. "You understand better why Marie has the kind of dream she does in Act Two - because of all the things she saw during the party in Act One."
Wells, who has worked as a principal dancer, choreographer and teacher for such companies as New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, reworked a good portion of the first act of Tulsa Ballet's "The Nutcracker."
The plan, Angelini said, was to make the company's unique take on this holiday ballet "more traditional and more accessible."
"And that is why I asked Bruce to do this because I wanted someone who would bring a completely fresh perspective to our 'Nutcracker,' " he said.
When Angelini's "Nutcracker" debuted in 2003, it replaced the version that had been choreographed by the company's founders, Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin, which had been a staple of the Tulsa holiday season for more than three decades.
The Jasinski-Larkin version followed the traditional story - a house party at Christmas, a dream that leads to a Kingdom of Sweets - but its choreography was relatively simple.
"It used to be that dancers thought of 'Nutcracker' as a time when they could take it easy and relax," said Georgia Snoke, whose own relationship with Tulsa Ballet's "Nutcracker" has been as a performer and teacher. "One of the wicked little joys I have these days is getting to watch new members of the company go into their first 'Nutcracker' rehearsal - and then come out on their hands and knees. It's so much more demanding a ballet for the dancers."
Angelini's "Nutcracker" is set in 1920s Paris and originally opened with a scene in the dance studio of the Paris Opera that featured as many as 24 young dancers.
That scene has been excised in favor of the new Christmas party scene. The character of Drosselmeyer, formerly the director of the Paris Ballet, is now a guest, an entertainer who has brought his latest creation to amuse the younger members of the party: a play titled "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."
"When I first watched Marcello's version," Wells said, "I realized he had choreographed it like an artistic director - making the best use out of everything he had to work with. And there's a great deal of the ballet that doesn't need to be changed."
One aspect of the opening Wells did like was the relationship between the Ballet Mistress - a role created for Snoke - and the Rehearsal Pianist. That relationship has been transformed for the new version, with Snoke as the head maid of the house, amorously pursued by the family's butler.
"It's now more flirtatious than antagonistic," Snoke said. "The choreography we do is the same, just the dynamic of the characters have changed."
Merry Lahti first got involved with Tulsa Ballet's "The Nutcracker" the way a good many Tulsans have - she had a daughter who wanted to dance.
"She was 10 years old and taking classes with Miss (Moscelyne) Larkin at the old Tulsa School of Ballet," Lahti said. "When she was cast in 'Nutcracker,' I volunteered to help backstage."
It's been a couple of decades since then, but Lahti continues to be a part of "The Nutcracker," as one of several people who help oversee the training and performances of the many children who take part in this annual production.
The 2012 edition of "The Nutcracker," for example, will have about 120 young dancers performing during the course of the run, playing guests at the Christmas party, as well as stalwart soldiers, antic mice and tumbling clowns.
This is also the first year in almost a decade when Tulsa Ballet's production will include performers as young as 6 years old.
If that sounds like way too many kids to keep an eye on, the older version of "The Nutcracker" Tulsa Ballet performed could have as many as 300 children involved.
"Compared to those days," Lahti said, laughing, "dealing with 120 or so seems almost easy. Almost."
The process begins in September with auditions for all children's roles, followed by two months of weekend rehearsals.
A group of volunteer teachers - including Lahti, Georgia Snoke, Mackie Sutton and Molly Daugherty - guide the youngsters through the finer points of their roles, as well as instill in them the sort of discipline needed to be part of a professional dance performance.
"I'm not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination," said Lahti, who is a fourth-grade teacher for Union Public Schools. "For the longest time, I did no teaching at all. I was more one of the organizers - putting together the rehearsal schedule, orchestrating all the volunteers backstage, all the behind-the-scenes things that allowed the teachers to do their jobs."
Snoke, who has been a part of Tulsa Ballet's "The Nutcracker" for much of its history, said: "One of the things all of us as teachers want is each child to be able to perform at a higher level by the end of 'Nutcracker' than they did when they started.
"For me, it's wonderful to see these youngsters take what they are doing so seriously," she said. "We know that few, if any, of them will go on to be dancers. But they are going to be able to use the discipline they are developing in everything they do from now on."
And for Snoke, who will performing her new role as Head Maid in this year's revised Act One, this particular edition of "The Nutcracker" has a personal resonance.
"My 7-year-old grandson, Anson, will be on stage with me this year," she said. "I have five grandchildren, and he's the last of them to be in 'The Nutcracker' with me."
‘The Nutcracker’ synopsis
Christmas Eve, Paris, circa 1920. Drosselmeyer, a famous French entertainer and Marie Stahlbaum's godfather, is heading to the Stahlbaums' home for their annual Christmas party. Drosselmeyer is accompanied by two of his performers, one of whom is his handsome nephew Charles. The performers plan to charm the guests at the Christmas party with a presentation of their new play.
The final preparations are taking place in the Stahlbaums' home for the Christmas party. The head maid and the butler are hard at work. The guests arrive and are welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum. Mr. Stahlbaum gives his wife a beautiful necklace. The butler presents the head maid, with whom he is in love, with a nice bracelet. The children open their presents and are thrilled at what they find: beautiful dolls representing different countries of the world. Fritz, who has been mischievous, receives a mouse doll.
Drosselmeyer arrives at the party. Charles and his partner perform their new play: "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King." The plot unfolds to reveal that the evil Mouse King has transformed a handsome young man into a wooden Nutcracker doll. The spell will be broken only if he defeats the Mouse King in battle and if a young girl promises to love him. If the spell is broken, the Nutcracker will become human again and regain his rightful status as a prince.
Marie is clearly fascinated by this story, and Drosselmeyer gives her the Nutcracker doll. Marie dances around the ballroom with the doll, imagining herself as the young girl in the story who will save the Nutcracker prince. As the guests leave the party, Marie falls asleep on a chair, dreaming of the Nutcracker story. Her parents decide to make sure everybody has left the house before waking her up and taking her to bed.
In her dream, Marie awakens alone in the room and sees a mouse. She tries to escape, protecting her Nutcracker doll, but more mice appear and surround her. As the clock strikes midnight, her Nutcracker doll is suddenly transformed into a life-sized soldier and chases off the mice to protect Marie.
As the Christmas tree in the foyer begins to grow, the Nutcracker's army enters to protect Marie. The Mouse King suddenly appears from under the staircase with his army in tow, and a battle ensues between the two brigades. The Nutcracker is almost defeated. Desperate to save her hero, Marie takes off her left shoe and hits the Mouse King with it. That action, showing the power of her love, defeats the forces of the Mouse King, who vanishes with his army.
The spell broken, the Nutcracker becomes a handsome prince again. Drosselmeyer reappears in her dream, and Marie runs to him for comfort. As she looks at herself in the mirror, she discovers that she has grown up to be a beautiful young woman. The Nutcracker soldier removes his mask, revealing him to be Charles. He and Marie dance together, surrounded by snowflakes. As the dance ends, a Rolls Royce arrives and whisks them away to Charles' castle.
Charles and Marie arrive at Charles' castle, enter the ballroom and are welcomed by Drosselmeyer. The dolls presented during the Christmas party are now life-size dancers ready to perform dances from their native countries as a tribute to the couple's future together. The bridesmaids and their cavaliers join Marie and Charles in an enchanting waltz. In a formal declaration of their love for each other, Charles and Marie dance a moving duet.
But, Marie's dream, like all dreams, must come to an end. Her parents wake her up to take her to bed. As she begins to recount her dream, Charles enters to retrieve the scarf that he accidentally left at the party. They pass each other and exchange a glance. He stops and looks back, as if to say, "Was it all just a dream?"
When: 2 p.m. Saturday and
Sunday, Dec. 16, 23; 2 and 7
p.m. Dec. 15 and 22.
Where: Chapman Music Hall,
Tulsa PAC, 101 E. Third St.
Tickets: $20-$86. 918-596-
Original Print Headline: Dance in a Dream
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Tulsa Ballet dancers Jose Antonio Checa Romeroin (left), Andres Figueroa, Gabriela Gonzalez and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev in costume with their respective dolls for the Tulsa Ballet production of "The Nutcracker" MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Dancer Andres Figueroa holds the doll that represents his character in "The Nutcracker" on the Kivisto Stage at the Tulsa Ballet. The 2-foot-tall dolls are presented as gifts to the children attending a family Christmas party as part of the ballet. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
The Tulsa Ballet performs "The Nutcracker" at the PAC. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World file
Merry Lahti helps direct child dancers playing mice during a rehearsal for Tulsa Ballet's "The Nutcracker." MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Mackie Sutton talks with the child dancers playing soldiers during a rehearsal for "The Nutcracker." MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World