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For any young dancer performing in The Nutcracker, Marie (aka Clara, depending on the production) is a dream role. But Charlotte Nebres, who will be playing Marie in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker this year isn't just bringing her own dream to life—she's also making history.

Charlotte is the first black dancer to ever perform the role of Marie in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, which dates all the way back to 1954. Charlotte was, of course, hugely excited to perform the role of Marie, but, according to the New York Times, when her mother told her that she was the first black dancer cast in the role, she said "Wow. That seems a little late."

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Ballet Stars
ABT in "Swan Lake." Petipa often collaborated with Lev Ivanov, who choreographed this ballet's white acts. Photo by John Grigaitis, Courtesy ABT.

Two hundred is the new 30. Or at least it seems so for Marius Petipa, whose ballets are as active as ever as we celebrate his 200th birthday this year.

Nearly all major ballet companies dance Petipa's iconic ballets, which reflect his prolific creative output. And they are heavy hitters: Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Paquita, The Pharaoh's Daughter, Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the 50-plus ballets he choreographed. He also revived and reworked earlier productions of Coppélia, La Fille mal gardée and Giselle. During American Ballet Theatre's 2018 spring season, five out of its eight weeks will be attributable to Petipa, including the debut of artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky's newly reconstructed Harlequinade.

Gabe Stone Shayer and Misty Copeland in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Doug Gifford, Courtesy ABT.

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Ballet Stars
Magda Saleh in "La Bayadere." Photo Courtesy Saleh.

When you think of Egypt, you might not immediately associate it with ballet. But during the late 1950s and 1960s, the country worked hard to establish its own world-class ballet company. With the help of the Soviet Union, Egypt's then minister of culture Dr. Tharwat Okasha established Cairo's Higher Institute of Ballet in 1958, bringing in teachers from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy to train the country's first generation of ballet stars. In 1963, five female students from the Institute's inaugural class were invited to finish their training with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

One of them, Magda Saleh, would become Egypt's first prima ballerina, and go on to perform with the Bolshoi and Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballets as a guest artist during her career. "Young girls in Egypt live a very sheltered life, and even to be studying ballet was exceptional," Saleh said in a phone interview last week. Their time studying abroad in Cold War-era Moscow was "character forming," she says. "Life was tough then for the majority of Russians, but it became very helpful for us during our careers, where we had to overcome many obstacles." In 1966, shortly after the women returned, the Cairo Ballet Company produced its first ballet, Boris Asafiev's Fountain of Bakhchisarai, in which Saleh starred. The performance was enormously successful, and for the next several years the new company enjoyed an exciting golden era.

Film clip courtesy of "A Footnote in Ballet History?"

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Viral 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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Everything Nutcracker
Houston Ballet's Sara Webb and Chun Wai Chan in "The Nutcracker." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Houston Ballet has a message for Mother Nature: Don't mess with Nutcracker.

After flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused extensive damage to the Wortham Center, Houston ballet's home theater, the company was forced to reschedule and relocate two of its programs this fall. But when the Wortham announced last month that it would be closed for repairs through mid-May, the company faced a bigger, financially scarier problem: cancelling 34 performances of its annual Nutcracker.


Melody Mennite in "Nutcracker." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

But artists are nothing if not resourceful. Yesterday, the company announced that its Nutcracker will be going on a "hometown tour," with 14 performances at the Smart Financial Center in nearby Sugar Land (December 10–23), and 14 performances at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts (December 30–January 6). The production, choreographed by artistic director Stanton Welch, was new last year, and includes opulent scenic and costume designs by Tim Goodchild. Current ticket holders can click here to reschedule their performances, while tickets will go on sale to the general public on October 14.

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News
The Wortham Theater Center, where Houston Ballet performs, after Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Monica Guerra, Courtesy Guerra.

After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's facilities and damaged its home theater, the Wortham Center, the company wasted no time finding temporary rehearsal space and rescheduling its first two programs of the season at the nearby Hobby Center. But today, the Texas company faced another major blow: The Wortham Center announced that it will be closed for repairs until at least mid-May. That means Houston Ballet now needs to reschedule more than half of its season—including 34 performances of Nutcracker.


As everyone in the dance world knows, Nutcracker is a major financial lifeline for American ballet companies. Houston's production, choreographed by artistic director Stanton Welch with sets and costumes by Tim Goodchild, was brand-new last year. (Fortunately, the company moved its sets and costumes to a safe location during the storm.) Finding space for a month-long run will surely not be easy, and the Hobby Center looks booked. While there's no news of a backup plan yet, here's hoping Houston Ballet will receive some Nutcracker magic—and be able to find a new home for this year's production. We'll keep you posted once they do.

Zakharova in "Swan Lake." Photo by B. Stoess, Courtesy Bolshoi.

Mark your calendars! This Sunday, the Bolshoi Ballet, in partnership with Fathom Events, kicks off its 2016-17 Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series. Between now and April, seven Bolshoi productions will be high-beamed to movie theaters around the world (400 in the U.S. alone), giving ballet lovers a chance to see the legendary company on the big screen.

In addition to standard classics like The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, this season is book-ended by two uniquely Russian ballets not performed by other companies, starting with Yuri Grigorovich's The Golden Age on October 16. Set in a cabaret during the Roaring 20s, The Golden Age is a Soviet love story between Boris, a young fisherman, and Rita, a dancer with connections to a local gangster. Yuri Possokhov's A Hero of Our Time, based on the great Russian literary classic of the same name, closes out the season in April.

In an exclusive interview, Pointe spoke with Bolshoi prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova about what it's like to perform for the camera.

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NYCB in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, photo by Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

For so many dancers, The Nutcracker is how they get their first glimpse of the ballet world. And for audiences who flock to the theater year after year to see their favorite version, it always somehow manages to keep its magical quality.

Today, Lincoln Center will bring a little of that holiday magic to approximately 400,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, with a broadcast of New York City Ballet's George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The production was originally released as part of the new Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance series (which also brought performances by San Francisco Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ballet Hispanico to the big screen this year).

Now, it will be broadcast via the American Forces Network to military bases all over the world—everywhere from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Philippines and Japan—and on Naval ships outside U.S. waters. The film will feature a behind-the-scenes segment and online interactive guide in addition to the performance, and will bring some comfort and seasonal spirit to those who are far away from home.

Sometimes we forget how much our performances mean to people. Next time you feel like you can’t possibly dance the snow scene one more time, it's worth thinking about the people you're bringing joy to every time you step onstage. Happy holidays!

 

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Cojocaru and ENB first soloist Junor Souza in ENB's Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of John Ross

In this clip from The Royal Ballet's 2000 production of The Nutcracker, a 19-year-old Alina Cojocaru, now a principal with the English National Ballet, does the near impossible: she makes Clara's adoration for a nutty-looking wooden doll appear genuine. Cojocaru aptly navigates the role's acting challenges: Clara must have both girlish innocence and womanly poise. She's old enough to dance with the adults, but her imagination—with its capacity to fall for dolls and later conjure gargantuan trees and exotic lands—is untamed by age. Cojocaru's winsome smiles and earnest expressions, her commitment to the emotional ups and downs (not to mention her already pristinely-polished technique) make for a convincing Clara.

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Sarasota Ballet in John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker. Photo by Frank Atura, courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

What do the Nutcracker and the circus have in common? A whole lot if you're a dancer at Sarasota Ballet, where Matthew Hart has reimagined the holiday classic as John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker. The whimsical production, which honors Sarasota as the longtime winter home of the circus, is complete with acrobats, clowns and a tightrope and runs Dec. 18-19. For Pointe's biweekly newsletter, we spoke with corps member Jessica Cohen, who plays Clara.

What makes this Nutcracker unique?

Nutcracker is mainly seen with the Land of Sweets, but because we're in Sarasota and the circus has such a big history here, the story is based around Clara's dream of running away to the circus. All the diverts are related to that.
How so?
Spanish is an equestrian act with three zebras, and Arabian has an enormous elephant that about eight dancers move. Sugar Plum and the Prince are actually world-renowned trapeze artists. Before their pas de deux, they come down on a trapeze.
What happens with Clara?
Clara is usually a bit of a bystander when it comes to the second act. But in this, she's really exploring the circus and is involved with all of the diverts. For example, the Chinese dance has acrobats, and at the end she's in a pyramid standing on their shoulders. I'm constantly a part of the action--or orchestrating it--and that's really fun.
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Chandra Kuykendall in Colorado Ballet's "The Nutcracker." Photo by Terry Shapiro, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Timeless as it may be, The Nutcracker has undergone a number of face-lifts. Yet for all the changes in setting, story and characterizations, the Sugar Plum Fairy variation always looks the same—well, sort of. A loose blueprint of Lev Ivanov's original choreography serves as a go-to model for almost all Sugar Plums (or adult Claras, who sometimes perform the pas). But just as companies tweak their productions, ballerinas often alter the variation to suit their strengths.

Choreography isn't the only variable. Sugar Plum can have different motives depending on the production. She could be the regal queen of the Land of Sweets welcoming Clara to her kingdom, a maternal figure teaching her the beauty of love, or Clara herself showing that she has come of age. In addition to overcoming the difficulty of the choreography, it's up to each dancer to make artistic choices that really bring the steps to life.

Fairy-in-Chief or Ingenue?

Shading your characterization depends on whom you're trying to portray. In traditional productions, the Sugar Plum Fairy performs the variation. “She's queen of the Land of Sweets," says Sandra Brown, who coaches the variation every year as ballet mistress at Colorado Ballet. “She's very regal and authoritative, so really bend and use your port de bras to show that. Dance with maturity and strength to establish her place in the hierarchy."

In other productions, the variation serves as a moment for Clara/Marie to enter adulthood. “You want to show her transition from a wide-eyed, naïve child to a mature human being," Brown says. “Your movements should be grander and more lyrical than earlier in the ballet. Your energy should be more grounded and subtle than that of a giddy child."

Let Technique Be Your Guide

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Back in St. Petersburg in 1892, when those four courtier-artists (director Vsevolozhsky, composer Tchaikovsky, ballet masters Petipa and Ivanov) were concocting their magical grownup-child ballet The Nutcracker, no one could have dreamed that 100-plus years later Nutcrackers would pop up every Christmas on stages all over the world. And this December, another one pops up in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Clara Stahlbaum, naughty little Fritz, their parents, party guests, weird uncle Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker Prince, the mouse army—all will live again, starting December 23, in American Ballet Theatre’s lavish new production.

 

This new Nutcracker, though, won’t be another ritual of sweetness and light—not just “the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing to entertain Clara,” in the words of its choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It will be something that matches the “very enigmatic score,” as Ratmansky puts it. “This is music that makes you cry,” says the choreographer, who’s grown famous for ingeniously emotional responses to a whole range of music. And he’s right: If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s music with fresh ears, you hear those notes of anguish underneath the familiar themes. Think of the tree-growing music—it’s majestic and grand, yet deeply sad. When he wrote it, Tchaikovsky might have sensed how fragile was the cozy Tsarist life he knew. The Mariinsky prima ballerina Gabriela Komleva once refused to dance the role of Clara: She thought the story too light for the anguished music.

 

But the story itself has dark places. E.T.A. Hoffmann, its German author, was a three-time refugee in Europe’s Napoleonic wars; in response, he wrote tales of fantasy and horror. Hoffmann’s 1816 Drosselmeyer was a much scarier magician than the figure in the ballet, and his mouse king was nasty: He could turn beautiful people into ugly ones. Even when Tchaikovsky and Petipa lightened the story for the stage, they left in some scary things. Armies of mice taking over your living room at night aren’t exactly reassuring.

 

Ratmansky wants to keep those dark parts of the story in his new production; at the same time, he believes Nutcracker should be family-friendly. “And I still want it to be classical,” he adds. “Honestly, I don’t have interest in dance without pointe shoes. I don’t know of anything more—what’s the word—full of opportunities. Pointe gives another dimension to dancing.”

 

A tall order: to make a Nutcracker that’s light enough for children and dark enough for adults; pure enough to be classical, surprising enough to be new. But anyone doubting Ratmansky’s skill at resolving paradoxes has only to hear him talking. A few months ago, the 42-year-old choreographer sat backstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and quietly answered questions about his Nutcracker plans. As he talked, he grew intense; his brown, slightly-pop eyes lit up. He adores the 1954 Balanchine Nutcracker that holds sway every Christmas at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. His won’t be like that, though it’s hard for him to describe something that’s not finished. But he can explain a few things: His new snow scene won’t be the usual wintry benediction, but instead, “a bit dangerous, not sweet.” His first-act party scene won’t be “all hobbyhorses and frilly petticoats, not quite as warm as usual.”

 

And he wants to deepen the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier that serves as the climax to the ballet’s second act. The music for that pas de deux seems to him “strangely unrelated” to the action that comes before. “It adds a lot of dramatic color to quite a light story. For me it sounds like Tchaikovsky’s painful look back on the beautiful times of childhood and growing up. Like looking from a distance.”

 

Audiences will get to see Ratmansky’s understanding of these complicated emotions, deepened by his two earlier encounters—or half encounters—with the ballet nine years ago. For the infamous revisionist, Mikhail Chemiakin-designed 2001 Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre, the one that dwells on mouse soldiers in Napoleonic retreat, Ratmansky was replaced in mid-choreography, presumably because he didn’t see eye to eye with the famous scenic artist. In that same year, he was grabbed by the Royal Danish Ballet to finish a half-choreographed Nutcracker being prepared for Tivoli Gardens (“That was the craziest month in my life,” he says).

 

Now, with many more ballets under his belt, and a stint as director of the mighty Bolshoi, ABT’s resident choreographer gets what he didn’t have before: time to work and distinguished collaborators. One of these is décor and costume designer Richard Hudson, of The Lion King fame. “He has exquisite taste,” says Ratmansky, “a feel of shape and form. I saw he could lead me somewhere I hadn’t been yet.” If preliminary sketches are right, Hudson has found that balance between traditional and fresh that Ratmansky wants. The waltz flowers have flouncy tutus of intense magenta. The Rat King wears an elegant gray waistcoat, pink baroque shoes and a hat of rat heads.

 

In the end, though, it’s the music that’s the key. “It’s so rich and deep—every new choreographer can get something out of it.” And Ratmansky didn’t even like Tchaikovsky’s music when he was young. He confesses, “I thought it was too emotional. I much preferred Stravinsky and Prokofiev.”

 

What’s changed? “I don’t judge anymore,” he says quietly. “Tchaikovsky knows how to look into the deepest cores of your soul. I don’t want this aspect to be lost behind a toy story. There are things in his music—and I hope in the dancing—that can’t be put into words. My main goal with this Nutcracker is never to forget about this side of Tchaikovsky.”

Elizabeth Kendall is a dance critic based in New York, at work on Revolution and the Muse, a book about Balanchine’s youth in Russia, and his ballerina-classmate, Lidiia Ivanova.

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