Everything Nutcracker

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Nutcracker are simply iconic—two of the world's most celebrated dancers in the world's best-loved ballet. Starring as Clara and the Prince in American Ballet Theater's 1977 made-for-television film, these two superb talents bring both technical and dramatic brilliance to the ballet's culminating scene.

In this version, which Baryshnikov himself choreographed, Clara and the Prince dance the grand pas de deux. He also mixes up the order so that the variations and coda precede the adagio. The clip begins with the tail end of Kirkland's variation, followed by a flawlessly danced coda. Baryshnikov, looking debonair in all white, flies in his jumps, rebounding off the floor like a spring, and Kirkland's impressive diagonal at 0:43 boasts triple fouetté turns.

The mood changes when Drosselmeyer, played by Alexander Minz, arrives in the first chords of the adagio to usher Clara away from her dreamland. In a pas de trois, Clara is torn between her beloved godfather and her prince, reluctant to choose between childhood and the promise of her dreams. In her gauzy nightgown, the delicate Kirkland is ethereal and waif-like as she is promenaded and passed in the air between her partners. She and Baryshnikov make a tender couple and in the end, as she chaînes into his arms, it is clear that she longs to stay with her prince. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Everything Nutcracker
Texas Ballet Theatre's Jiyan Dai and Samantha Pille (center) with members of Queensland Ballet. Photo courtesy TBT.

One way to change up your Nutcracker run is to perform it halfway around the world. This holiday season, two Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince couples from Texas Ballet Theater and Australia's Queensland Ballet did just that in a fun cross-company exchange. Last week, TBT artists Samantha Pille and Jiyan Dai traveled to Brisbane to debut in the Australian company's Nutcracker performances. Now, Queensland Ballet dancers Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos are in Fort Worth for the follow-up shows. They had their first performance last night and are scheduled to dance again December 22.


From left: Queensland Ballet's Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos with TBT's Jiyan Dai and Samantha Pille. Photo courtesy TBT.

TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson, O.B.E., and Li Cunxin, artistic director for Queensland Ballet, dreamed up the holiday swap hoping to give their dancers a fresh Nutcracker experience. The exchange is particularly meaningful because of the directors' shared history. Cunxin (whose autobiography Mao's Last Dancer was made into a major motion picture in 2009), danced as a principal under Stevenson during his tenure as artistic director of Houston Ballet. After taking the helm of Queensland Ballet, Cunxin brought Stevenson's production of Nutcracker to Australia.

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Videos
Lauren Grace Onderko. Photo Courtesy Justice.

Can't get enough Nutcracker? Don't fear. Tween clothing brand Justice has just released a web series called "Finding Clara," which follows four young dancers cast as Clara in BalletMet's production of The Nutcracker. The first three episodes are available on YouTube, and the final installment will be released on Friday, December 22. Each video is about 20 minutes long.

Justice is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, the home of BalletMet, leading to an easy collaboration. The company gave Justice exclusive and uninhibited access to everything behind the scenes, from auditions to rehearsals to performance. Part of Justice's mission is to empower young girls and spread positive messages, and they have a huge video collection. This isn't their first foray into balletearlier this fall they created a series of ballet video tutorials. A representative from Justice told us that the goal of the new series is to give "a real-life snapshot of the heart and soul these girls put into their Nutcracker performancethe rehearsals, overcoming challenges, celebrating wins and the bonds of friendships made."

The four ClarasAlaina Kelly, Molly Rainford-Dreibelbis, Lauren Grace Onderko and Isabelle Lapierrerange in age from 10-13, and their positive, excited energy is clear throughout the series. The issues that they deal with such as balancing schoolwork and rehearsal, managing jealousy and competition with their peers, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle despite busy schedules will feel familiar to dancers of all ages. So over your holiday break, cozy up with some hot chocolate and dive into the world of "Finding Clara."

Check out the trailer below, followed by the first three episodes:

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Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in "Nutcracker." Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Our company's Nutcracker was choreographed by Sir Peter Wright, and it's very traditional. We usually only have two weeks to prepare after the end of the autumn season, so my partner and I start going over the grand pas de deux on our own time before rehearsals start. I like to do my own research through social media or by watching how other company dancers interpret the role, drawing from what I like best and trying to apply that to myself. I also video my rehearsals and later critique them, to try to get my performance up to another level.

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Texas Ballet Theater's Brett Young as Edward Scissorhands in "The Nutty Nutcracker." Photo by Steven Visneau, Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater.

On December 15, Texas Ballet Theater will set aside its familiar Nutcracker costumes, variations and sets for their one-night-only performance of The Nutty Nutcracker. A satirical take on the classic story, The Nutty Nutcracker combines the most riotous in current pop culture and politics with Tchaikovsky's well-worn refrains.

TBT dancers portray Elsa and Olaf in the snow scene of the Nutty Nut in 2015. Photo by Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT.

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Your Career
Artists of Wonderbound in "Snow." Photo by Amanda Tipton, Courtesy Wonderbound.

As a student in a pre-professional ballet school, one of the best parts of performing in company productions was getting to be in the midst of the action with the company dancers. In Nutcracker, for example—between my all-important moments of dancing glory (the two minute children's dance)—I'd eavesdrop on the party parents' conversations and (sometimes PG-13) jokes.

Even with the hazards of sweat flung from a pirouetting dancer's forehead, I often feel that audience members are missing out—watching a ballet from the front is rarely so intimate.

It seems I'm not alone in this thought. Two regional companies are looking to shake up the performance format with their immersive winter productions. With live music, cocktails, puppetry and up-close and personal party access, American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite and Wonderbound's Snow are sure to pique new interest.


American Contemporary Ballet's Sarah Bukowski as Marzipan. Photo by Art Lessman, Courtesy ACB.

American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite

American Contemporary Ballet, now in its seventh season, is premiering its unique Nutcracker production this year. Artistic director Lincoln Jones was initially reluctant to do a party scene. "For audiences today, especially audiences in Los Angeles where they don't really grow up with ballet," he says, party scene's "over-large acting" can be difficult to connect with.

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Pointe Stars

December is here and the holiday season—better known to ballet dancers as Nutcracker season—is in full swing. To celebrate, we're throwing it back to Patricia Barker and Wade Walthall as Clara and the prince in Pacific Northwest Ballet's 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

In this reimagining of the ballet by PNB founding artistic director Kent Stowell and famed writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, young Clara (played by Vanessa Sharp) defeats the multi-headed mouse king all on her own with a well-aimed, enchanted pointe shoe. She then follows her Nutcracker inside the shell of the mouse king's armor and ventures into an icy cavern. There she is transformed into an older version of herself, played by Patricia Barker. Clara emerges from the cavern to find that her Nutcracker has transformed as well, from a toy caricature into a handsome, mustachioed prince.

Cautiously, Clara takes the prince's hand. That is when the real enchantment begins. At 2:20 Barker dives into a penché arabesque that is far more dazzling than any cinematic effect. Long-limbed and fresh-faced, Barker captures Clara's innocence even as an adult. She soars across the stage in Walthall's arms, her nightgown billowing in the cold night air. An endless swirl of movement, this pas de deux blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy for the audience. Although Stowell and Sendak's Nutcracker retired from PNB's repertory in 2014, this film ensures that their unique version of the classic can still be enjoyed year after year. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
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Artwork by Ruben Toledo, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

After nearly three decades at Miami City Ballet, George Balanchine's The Nutcracker demanded a makeover. Costumes and scenery, as artistic director Lourdes Lopez admits, were faded and frayed. To do justice to such a beloved ballet, she has partnered with The Music Center for a new production to debut in Los Angeles this December before brightening South Florida theaters.

Lopez entrusted husband-and-wife artistic team Isabel and Ruben Toledo with bringing The Nutcracker into high definition, drawn by both their sense of classicism and innovative creativity. The Cuban-American couple may work in different media—Isabel is a fashion designer, Ruben as a visual artist—yet as collaborators they flourish in stage work.

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