Tulsa Ballet this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the company presenting “The Nutcracker” in its entirety. But the current production of this holiday classic is not long for this world.
“This is the next to the last year for this production,” said Marcello Angelini, Tulsa Ballet’s artistic director and the creator of the company’s unique take on “The Nutcracker.” “When we created this production, we designed it to last at least 10 years. We’re now in the 16th year. It still looks good from the audience, but if you see the costumes up close, they really need to be refurbished.
“And for the amount of money it would take to refurbish this production, (that) would almost pay for the creation of a brand-new ‘Nutcracker,’ ” he said.
This brand-new “Nutcracker” will debut in December 2021. Plans for the new work started in 2014, when the company began its $25 million “Defining the Future” campaign, which included funding for recent world-premiere productions as “Dorothy and the Prince of Oz” and “Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music,” as well as allocating $1.5 million toward the creation of a new “Nutcracker.”
Angelini said resident choreographer Ma Cong, and stage designer Tracy Grant Lord from the Royal Ballet of New Zealand, who collaborated on “Tchaikovsky,” will be part of the creative team for the new “Nutcracker.” A co-choreographer may be announced at a later date.
A bit of history
While this year is the 50th anniversary of Tulsa Ballet performing the complete ballet of “The Nutcracker,” the ballet has been a part of the company’s history from the start.
Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin, two stars of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo who settled in Tulsa after they retired from performing, presented excerpts from “The Nutcracker” as part of a 1956 performance for a city organization called The Pilot Club.
The Jasinskis established a dance school, which is still in operation today as the Jasinski Academy, and began training the next generation of dancers. In 1969, they staged the first full-length performance of “The Nutcracker,” featuring New York City Ballet stars Jacques d’Amboise and Melissa Hayden in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince.
Throughout the next decade, Tulsa Ballet would bring in some of the top stars of the ballet world to headline its production of “The Nutcracker,” including Peter Martins, Cynthia Gregory, Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson.
In 1978, the company presented the first “Nutcracker” with a cast made up entirely of Tulsa performers. The next year, the production debuted a new set design by Jay Depenbrock, which featured a growing, spinning Christmas tree and a solid-seeming house that flew apart and disappeared into the upper reaches of the stage.
This is the production the company would use for the next two decades. In 2002, the company performed the Jasinski-Larkin version of “The Nutcracker” for the last time, concluding the final performance of the run with an on-stage tribute to Miss Larkin (Jasinski died in 1991).
“To be honest,” Angelini said, “there was not a lot of interest in creating a new ‘Nutcracker.’ But the production we were using was 20 years old, and it was falling apart. In fact, it was getting to the point where it wasn’t safe to use. So it was as much a necessity to create a new production as anything else.”
The Mother Ginger of invention
Angelini used the connections he had established during his career as a dancer to produce as high a quality production as the budget would allow.
“Our budget was about $400,000, which was what we had figured it would cost to refurbish the original production,” he said. “And that is nothing. A single ballet costume can cost as much as $1,500 to $2,000 — with a production like ‘Nutcracker,’ you’re looking at spending $350,000 simply on costumes.”
Noted stage and costume designer Luisa Spinatelli agreed to design the production and enlisted the Milan-based Brancato Sartoria Teatrale to build the costumes, and the Libralato in Venice to construct and paint the scenic backdrops.
“Thanks to their willingness to work with us, we got a million-dollar production for about half the price,” Angelini said.
One of the reasons these artists wanted to work on Tulsa Ballet’s “Nutcracker” was because it was a unique twist on this now-familiar story. Angelini’s “Nutcracker” is set in 1920s Paris, to give the proceedings an aura of glamour, with a dream sequence in which the young girl at the center of the story, Marie, transforms into an adult version of herself and is whisked away into an opulent world of romance, from the Gardens at Versailles to a royal palace.
That story, especially the first act, has undergone a number of changes through the years. When it debuted, the opening scene was set in a dance studio of the Paris Opera; today, the ballet opens with a lavish Christmas party. Angelini would rework the choreography for certain scenes, increase the number of children in the production, or add characters such as the always popular Mother Ginger and her mischievous minions.
“That was all planned,” Angelini said. “You always want to keep the ballet fresh for the people who come every year. Mr. Jasinski was always fiddling with his ‘Nutcracker’ during his life.”
Angelini also rearranged and edited the Tchaikovsky score, to better hold the interest of audiences young and old.
“After about two hours, children can get tired,” he said. “I think, in all, we removed about 20 minutes of music from the ballet, and we shifted the main solos from the end of ballet to other places within the story.”
The male solo, a bravura creation that crams a host of showy moves into a perpetual motion dance done at full speed, comes when the character of Charles, who becomes the Prince of Marie’s dreams, makes his entrance in Act One. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, played to a slower tempo than written, is Marie’s way of introducing herself to the dream world of the second act.
A grand exit
When Angelini’s “Nutcracker” debuted, it was met with skepticism by some, who weren’t taken with the slightly darker, more European tone of the ballet. However, over time the ballet has returned to being the company’s most popular offering, setting and breaking sales records over the past five years.
Angelini said he had “neither the time nor the strength to do another ‘Nutcracker,’” but added that he is planning to be part of the creative team for the new production.
“I believe ballets need to make sense — and in the case of ‘The Nutcracker,’ that is even more important,” he said. “You have to make sure to explain how the story flows from the party scene to the dream scene, and how it all wraps up in the end.
“It’s like telling a story to a child,” Angelini said. “If a child doesn’t understand the story, he or she is going to start asking questions. You have to make sure that the ballet provides those answers. That’s going to be something I will insist on in the new production — why is this bit here, how does it connect to the rest of the story?’ ”
Angelini said the current production will go into storage after the final performances in December 2020.
“We’re not going to have any kind of ‘Nutcracker’ bonfire,” he said, laughing. “Who knows? We might bring it out for special occasions. We had thought about bringing out the Jasinski ‘Nutcracker’ for the company’s 60th anniversary, but it’s simply not safe to use.”
As for the things Angelini might miss about the current “Nutcracker,” he paused for a moment, then said, “I still like the Snow Scene, the Waltz of the Flowers and the Grand pas de deux. When you have a couple who have a great chemistry, who capture the sense of innocence I want that dance to have, it can be really special.
“And the last moment, that last look between Charles and Marie,” he said. “I have to confess — I know what’s coming, and it still gets me every time.”