For many, seeing a live performance of 'The Nutcracker' is as much a holiday tradition as tree lighting and gift giving.
Ballet is a refined art form appreciated by a sophisticated few, so it’s somewhat ironic that the most beloved ballet of all time, and the one that serves as a rite of passage for many leading into the holiday season — the Nutcracker — was initially panned by critics.
Its debut in Russia in 1892 was a failure, but was well received when the New York City Ballet staged George Balanchine’s version of it in 1954, and the tradition of performing the Tchaikovsky-scored musical during the holiday season eventually spread throughout the United States.
The Atlantic City Ballet has made the Nutcracker part of its repertoire since the company formed in 1982, and has performed it to sold-out audiences annually. Under the direction of founder and artistic director Phyllis Papa, the A.C. Ballet will this year bring the Nutcracker to Collingswood, Cape May, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center on Dec. 10 and 11.
“I think for a lot of people it’s like a kickoff to the holiday season, and an event people enjoy going to see each year,” says Papa, who employs 22 professional dancers in the production, many of whom come from, and were formally ballet trained in, other countries. “And what’s really interesting is that every company that does the Nutcracker does it differently. Unless you’re doing George Balanchine’s version of the Nutcracker — and there are some professional companies that take his choreography and use it — then every one throughout the world is different. Mine is totally different because it’s my choreography, and the same with other companies. Even though it’s the same story, and even though the music is the same, all the dance steps, the scenery and the costumes are different from one production to the next.”
The two-act production is the story of a young girl named Clara, the gift she receives of a nutcracker, and her “enchanted dreams of princes, princesses, sugar plums and toy soldiers.” Along with her professional-dance cast, Papa also auditions and engages local children for certain scenes.
“The party scene calls for children and one small section in the battle, so when we go up to Collingswood they audition, and for [Stockton] we have kids from this area audition,” says Papa. “What’s particularly great about it is that they get a chance to see how a professional production works. This is like an education to them, as it would be elsewhere. Even the New York City Ballet uses children.
“I try to improve the production each year, wherever I think there might be a weak spot,” she says. “I’d have to say that in all the years we’ve done it, it’s gotten better and better because we try to improve it all the time.
“The beginning of Act Two I change almost every year,” adds Papa. “The choreography there I just never felt worked 100 percent, and it does depend on the number of dancers you have too. Normally the beginning of Act Two will open with 16 dancers and this year I have 12, so things have to be changed a bit because sometimes there’s choreography that just doesn’t work well with a particular dancer, and I have to make adjustments. But this year I really kind of like the beginning of Act Two, so we may keep it intact for next year.”
Because the ballet’s musical score (probably best recognized by the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) is so universally appealing, and the sets, scenery and costumes so colorful, the Nutcracker has always been a favorite of children.
“I’ve had really little children that I’ve watched in the audience, two or three years old, who sit and are glued to the production without making a peep,” says Papa, the mother of four who says it can sometimes take hours to properly choreograph a single minute of music. “They don’t say anything — except for maybe when the Rat King comes out and they get a little scared — but other than that they tend to sit there and take it all in. There’s nothing like a live performance, whether you’re young or old.”
Where: Richard Stockton College Performing Arts Center
When: Friday, Dec. 10, 7pm; Saturday, Dec. 11, 1pm & 5pm
How Much: $35 orchestra ($30 seniors), $20 mezzanine ($15 seniors), $10 children under 12 with adult ticket. 652-9000 or stockton.edu/pac
Moscow Ballet’s ‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ brings holiday cheer to Atlantic City at Harrah's Resort while the A.C. Ballet takes its 'The Nutcracker' to area venues.
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