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Keeping 'The Nutcracker' on its toes
By MARINA BROWN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000
Christmas tree -- check. Eggnog -- check. Nutcracker ballet -- check. Yep, all the requisite traditions accounted for.
But even if the annual Nutcracker trek leaves you rooting for that top-heavy rat to just finish off the Wooden Prince and be done with it, the little people you love still find themselves transfixed. And so each year, off you and yours march to the Land of the Sweets.
Since 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa bundled up some German fairy tales and crossed their fingers that Tchaikovsky could whip them into an elegant story ballet for the Russian upper crust, The Nutcracker has never been off the stage.
And though 21st century audiences are still lining up, the companies ask, "Will they always?"
It's no idle question for ballet companies that need the audiences -- and revenue -- that this tradition always brings. Nutcrackers have proliferated so that in the Tampa Bay-Sarasota area alone, there are at least a half-dozen productions this season.
So what's a dance group to do to keep its production fresh, its dancers enthused and the audience coming back for more?
"We tweak," says Mary Elle Hunter, publicist for the Sarasota Ballet. "We're always tweaking."
And rechoreographing. Although some dances, like the pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, are sacrosanct, choreographers can be creative with the rest of the work.
"With over 100 kids on stage, I felt the dads needed a little treat, too," said Robert DeWarren, Sarasota's director, of the 1999 production. "I put three very sensuous, very modern dancers into "Turkish Delight,' he smiles. "We always get lots of male bravos for that one."
Suzanne Pomerantzeff, director of the Ballet Department at the Pinellas Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, says she sometimes feels like Barnum: always needing to up the ante of interest.
"Right now, we have four set changes, over 100 props (including a hot-air balloon), 30 stage staff from Gibbs and 125 wonderful dancers," she said of the production that debuts tonight at the Mahaffey Theater. "And what's great is that the student techies and costume designers are always coming up with new ideas."
The Miami City Ballet, largest of the professional companies in South Florida, tours its Nutcracker from late November until Christmas. Using six sets of principal dancers and four to five casts of local children who rehearse before the company's arrival "keeps everyone on their toes," says ballet mistress Eve Lawson.
"Trying to integrate 6-year-olds into the complicated Balanchine story line is sometimes hilarious."
She notes that every year someone gets the growing Christmas tree caught in a tiara. And she must rely on the crew member who crouches beneath Clara's moving bed to roam the stage like some giant Zamboni, snarfing up dropped mouse swords, headpieces and stray shoes after the frenzied rat battle scene.
At the Sarasota Ballet, "It's the snow in the Ice Kingdom that causes most of the anxiety," says DeWarren. Along with the magician, he has invested in a snow machine that causes a minor blizzard to descend on dancers -- and audience.
"We had to check with our attorney to make sure we couldn't get sued for dry cleaning bills." (Luckily the "snow" evaporates before it coats the hall.)
Miami takes no such risks. "Our snow is paper, like confetti, well, actually like chads," Lawson says. "Have you ever pirouetted on thousands and thousands of dimpled chads? I guess they're slippery in more ways than one," she says with a giggle.
Perhaps no Nutcracker goes further to surprise and innovate than Paulette Johnson's Chocolate Nutcracker. Not content with Tchaikovsky's score, Johnson's dancers move to hip-hop and jazz and swing to conga drums in the Land of Funk. Mother Goose gives way to a witch doctor on stilts, and the youngsters onstage are as multicultural as any Benetton ad. Judith Lee Johnson, in whose studio the company rehearses, says, "When I first saw the Chocolate Nutcracker, my mouth fell open. I felt like a 5-year-old -- just amazed!"
Marina Brown is a Treasure Island writer who has been a soloist with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and has taught dance at Butler University in Indiana. She estimates she has danced hundreds of Nutcrackers and is taking a young friend to the ballet this year.
Here are your local Nutcracker options from now until Christmas:
The Nutcracker, by the students of Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. 7 p.m. today, 2 and 7 p.m. Sat., Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. $10-$20. (727) 892-5767.
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, with the Miami City Ballet and the Florida Orchestra. 8 p.m. today , 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $19.75-$37.75. (727) 791-7400.
The Nutcracker, with the Ballet Society, 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sun., Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. $12.50 adult, $6.50 student. (727) 587-6793.
The Chocolate Nutcracker, multicultural production featuring more than 120 local students and Baakari Wilder, star of Broadway show Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $17.75. (727) 791-7400.
Nutcracker on Ice, with the stars of the St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet of Russia and the Florida Orchestra; 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Ice Palace, Tampa. $18.50-$35.50; half price for ages 12 and under.
The Nutcracker, by Sarasota Ballet of Florida, with the Florida West Coast Symphony. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 7 p.m. Dec. 19-20; 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 21 and 23. $12-$46. (941) 351-8000.
Students from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School perform their Nutcracker today and Saturday at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
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