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Williams on Historical Nutcracker Ballet

Cynthia Williams, professor of dance, was among the experts consulted for an article on “The Nutcracker” ballet’s history and little-known facts. The article, in the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne discusses the statistics and history behind “The Nutcracker” prior to a local opening of the ballet.

Among the interesting tidbits is the fact that Composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky used the score to debut a musical instrument in Russia and made sure to hide the instrument from a rival composer so he couldn’t use it first. The article also notes, “The Nutcracker” was the first instance in ballet that children were cast instead of diminutive adults in children’s roles,” ” It is not true that “The Nutcracker” was a flop when it premiered in 1892,” and “The Nutcracker became what it is today by being performed and adapted in North America, where it developed as a more family- friendly ballet, embracing the use of children and involving whole communities in the production.”

After consulting the International Encyclopedia of Dance, Williams discussed famous film versions of “The Nutcracker.” The article notes, “Adaptations of the Nutcracker have been made that feature cartoon characters, action figures and once-prominent child stars including Tom and Jerry, the Care Bears, Barbie and Macaulay Culkin.” It cites Williams as saying, “The most famous film treatment may still be Walt Disney’s animation of `The Nutcracker Suite’ as it appeared in the film `Fantasia.'”

The complete article about the ballet as it appeared in The Journal Gazette follows (each asterisk denotes a new fact about the ballet).


The Journal Gazette
`Nutcracker’ numbers Stats, history you don’t know about ballet classic
Steve Penhollow • December 5, 2008

Fort Wayne Ballet’s latest production of “The Nutcracker” debuts tonight, so
here’s a list of facts and tales about the ballet in general and the local version in particular.

*Composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky used “The Nutcracker” to debut a musical instrument called the celesta that had not been heard in Russia up to that point.

“Tchaikovsky discovered the celesta in Paris and had one shipped to his manager in St. Petersburg with the express instructions not to let (Russian composer Nikolai) Rimsky-Korsakov find out or he’d use it first,” says Jennifer Fisher, professor at the University of California and author of “Nutcracker Nation.” “He had in mind to embody the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

*Tchaikovsky based the Sugar Plum Fairy on his late sister.

“One musicologist notes that he couldn’t go to her funeral while he was in Paris and the music of the grand pas de deux has a lot of the sorrow he felt over her death,” Fisher says. “If you listen to the end of the grand pas de deux, with a tragically descending melody that repeats over and over, you can believe he meant it as a sort of memorial to her and his sorrow.”

*Tchaikovsky’s score for “The Nutcracker” was composed specifically for the
ballet according to choreographer Marius Petipa’s vision, says Karen
Gibbons-Brown, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s artistic director. Ballets customarily
aren’t choreographed until scores are completed.

“I think most people assume that Tchaikovsky composed the score first, and then the ballet followed,” writes Western Carolina University dance teacher Ann Dowling in an e-mail. “But Marius Petipa, who was the artistic director of the Maryinski Theatre (currently home of the Kirov ballet), when the ballet premiered actually worked very closely with Tchaikovsky in determining the score.”

“So if it hadn’t been for the ballets,” she writes, “much of Tchaikovsky’s most famous music wouldn’t exist.”

*”The Nutcracker” was the first instance in ballet that children were cast instead of diminutive adults in children’s roles, Gibbons- Brown says.

*It is not true that “The Nutcracker” was a flop when it premiered in 1892.

“It’s like one of those urban myths that grow,” Fisher says. She says
Tchaikovsky debuted some of the music before the ballet bowed and the score was well-received. The ballet got mixed reviews, although it did draw some raves.

Fisher says only the poor reviews are quoted from these days.

*”The Nutcracker” is the single most-viewed ballet in repertoire of ballet companies around the world, Gibbons-Brown says.

“Performances of The Nutcracker by U.S. ballet schools and companies became a
huge financial boon to the underfunded art organizations,” says Joan Buttram,
associate professor of dance at the University of Georgia, “with this annual
production often providing the funding necessary for them to produce the fall and spring productions of each year’s season calendar.”

*In other countries, it is not unusual to see “The Nutcracker” performed at any time of year, Gibbons-Brown says. “The ballet is one with a holiday setting,(but it’s) not necessarily a holiday ballet,” she says.

*You should always choose a local American production over a touring Russian one. So opines Fisher.

“The Nutcracker became what it is today by being performed and adapted in North America, where it developed as a more family- friendly ballet, embracing the use of children and involving whole communities in the production,” she says.

“It used to be a Russian ballet – that’s the heritage. But during the Soviet years, they missed out on the whole Nutcracker movement that turned it into a classical but friendly ballet. Their productions are not only more expensive to attend, but they lack the warmth, the children and the atmosphere of a family Christmas and utopian fantasy land.”

*The most famous film version of “The Nutcracker”? Adaptations of the Nutcracker have been made that feature cartoon characters, action figures and once-prominent child stars including Tom and Jerry, the Care Bears, Barbie and Macaulay Culkin. But Cynthia J. Williams, professor of dance at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has another suggestion.

“The most famous film treatment may still be Walt Disney’s animation of `The
Nutcracker Suite’ as it appeared in the film `Fantasia,'” she says.

*Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” makes use of 100 pounds of dry ice per performance, according to Gibbons-Brown.

*It also includes 145 costumes each performance. The costumes were designed and constructed by Fort Wayne Ballet’s costumer, Tess Heet, with some help from a few volunteers.

*The ratio of dancers to support staff for each performer in Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” is about 1-to-5, Gibbons-Brown says.

*The preparation and load-in of the sets, costumes and props for Fort Wayne
Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” takes four days.

*The youngest cast member in this year’s production of Fort Wayne Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is 11 weeks old.

“Yes, that’s a real baby in the party scene,” Gibbons-Brown says.

*By the end of this year’s run of Fort Wayne Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” the
dancers performing sur les pointes (on the toes) will have spent about $6,000 on pointe shoes just for the performances alone, Gibbons-Brown says.

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