DENVER DOES THE NUTCRACKER
Like the Colorado Symphony performing Handel’s Messiah, the floats of the 9News Parade of Lights, and Scrooge’s humbug at the Denver Center Theatre, The Nutcracker ballet is a highly anticipated and much enjoyed tradition of the holiday season in Denver. With its Christmas Eve theme, sugar plum fairies, waltzing flowers, battling mice, and real children on stage, The Nutcracker has a special appeal for families. This ballet is performed hundreds of times every year in cities throughout the country by professional dance companies as well as by local ballet schools. This year, the Colorado Ballet will perform The Nutcracker 26 times with many shows selling out. Ballet Ariel and Boulder Ballet also are staging the ballet, and the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker casts local children in its Denver production. At least seven ballet studios in metro Denver will offer productions featuring students in the major roles. There is no shortage of opportunities for audience members and young ballet students to get their Nutcracker fix.
The Nutcracker ballet is based on a story called Nutcracker and Mouse King that was written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816 and was a scary fairy tale intended for adults. Many years later, the elder Alexander Dumas modified the story into a more child friendly version, and Marius Petipa, chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, decided to make it into a ballet. Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky was commissioned to write the score, and Petipa’s assistant Lev Ivanov created the choreography. The production was performed for the first time a week before Christmas in 1892 at the Imperial Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Surprisingly, this debut performance received mixed reviews.
The San Francisco Ballet staged the first performance of the ballet in the United States by an American company on Christmas Eve in 1944 at the War Memorial Opera House. The ballet was an instant sensation. The legendary George Balanchine had danced the role of the Prince in Russia in 1919 when he was 15 years old, and decided to choreograph his own version of The Nutcracker in 1954. His New York City Ballet version has become a classic in and of itself.
The annual tradition of performing The Nutcracker during the holiday season became widespread in the 1960s, and the ballet has been re-created many times over the years. Revisionist versions abound, like modern dance choreographer Mark Morris’s dark and homoerotic 1991 version, The Hard Nut, which moves the story out of the traditional German setting and into 1960s American suburbia. Tschaikovsky’s now instantly recognizable score was immortalized in the popular Disney film Fantasia in 1940, and many film, television and DVD versions of the ballet have been produced. It seems fair to say that The Nutcracker has done more to instill classical ballet in pop culture than any other single ballet.
The Colorado Ballet’s production, now in its 55th year, is the grande dame of Colorado Nutcrackers. Michelle Dolighan-Rodenbeck is a former principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet and danced many roles in The Nutcracker, including Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, during her 12 years with the company. “It was my childhood dream to dance Clara,” she says. “I was only 19 years old when I danced Clara, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” While professional company members dance the major roles, more than 80 students from the Colorado Ballet Academy will dance in the production this year. The children are auditioned by height, and multiple casts are selected. The youngest children are cast as angels, and students progress through the child roles as they grow in height and skill.
Emily O’Neal is a former Colorado Ballet Academy student and performed in The Nutcracker during middle school. O’Neal says The Nutcracker children spend a lot of time in the dressing room so they won’t be underfoot backstage. She recalls the friendly way the dancers joked with some of the students during rehearsals, but was terrified of getting in the way of the adult Mouse King and his army during the frenetic battle scene. “And hats,” she says, “I remember lots of uncomfortable headgear.” This experience in The Nutcracker provides serious dance students with a glimpse into the world of professional classical ballet dancers, and O’Neal says it transformed her attitude toward dance. O’Neal continued her dance training through high school and now performs with a student run dance group at Stanford University where she is a freshman.
Michelle Dolighan-Rodenbeck has been owner and director of Classic Dance Academy (CDA) since 2010 and now stages a production of The Nutcracker with her own ballet students. The studio does a production every year to give students performing experience in the classical ballet tradition, and many of the students and their families say the holiday season would not be complete without it. Dolighan-Rodenbeck and her staff spend countless hours planning for the show every year. “It’s always a 98 degree day when I have the first artistic meeting,” she says. Auditions are held in September, and rehearsals, staging, and costuming take up most of her time until the performances in mid-December.
Classic Dance Academy has about 85 young dancers participate in the production. Students dance all the roles, and one professional guest artist appears in the show each year. One CDA student, 13-year old Gabriele Lukasik, has been dancing since she was four years old, and has performed in a studio production of The Nutcracker for eight of the past nine years. Over the years she has danced many parts, from party girl and marzipan, to Harlequin, Russian, and Clara. This year, Lukasik will dance Snow and Russian while her younger sister will perform Clara. “Snow is a lot different than the other roles I have danced — it’s a more mature role and more challenging, and it gives me an opportunity improve,” she said. Preparing for these roles takes a great deal of time, with rehearsals taking place during class, after class, and on weekends. “It takes dedication, discipline, and hard work,” Lukasik says, “and I know these are all qualities I will need later in life. Plus it’s really fun and I get to work with amazing people.” Lukasik dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, and already has won many top awards at the Youth America Grand Prix and the Denver Ballet Guild Young Dancers Competition. For her and other serious young ballet students, the experience of doing the same production and often the same roles year after year allows for significant improvement in artistry, skill and technique.
CDA students plan for their participation in The Nutcracker production far in advance, and the experience provides invaluable training and motivation. “There is a natural progression of roles for the students,” says Dolighan-Rodenbeck. “They practice the steps for months, and feel such a great sense of accomplishment when they can move up to the next level and be an Angel or a Flower.” This year is particularly special for Dolighan-Rodenbeck because two of her own sons will be on stage; her oldest, Alex, is dancing the role of the Nutcracker Prince for the first time.
For people looking for something different, two major Denver dance companies offer alternative holiday productions. Cleo Parker Robinson has been presenting its high energy, multicultural show, Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum for almost 25 years. Artistic Director Garrett Ammon has created a new, innovative production for Wonderbound this holiday season. Winter is an original fable set to live music by Jesse Manley and His Band, with a final immersive five sensory experience including scents, food samplings from local restaurants, projections by Kristopher Collins, and select audience participation along the way.
Still, there is something extra special about time honored tradition of The Nutcracker. Whether you are an audience member at a professional production, a family member or friend attending a student production, or a young ballet student dancing the role of Clara or a sugar plum, this ballet seems to have something for everyone, year after year. Emily O’Neal remembers listening to the orchestra warming up for the overture while waiting in the wings to make her entrance as the first of the Colorado Ballet party children. “Every time I hear that music, I remember the nervousness and anticipation of that moment,” she says, “It’s a very special memory.”
For many, the holiday season is not complete without an evening at The Nutcracker. CDA’s Gabriele Lukasik thinks that seeing The Nutcracker is a great way to get into the holiday spirit and “to have fun and be festive.” Michelle Dolighan-Rodenbeck says “I love the consistency of the tradition from year to year. When you hear the music, it’s like a Bing Crosby Christmas carol. It resonates in people’s hearts. It’s a beautiful and magical tradition.”
Hilary Simons Morland: Hilary is a free-lance writer and grant-writer, and writes often about dance. She is a life-long aficionado of the performing arts, and studied dance through college. Hilary is a Denver Ballet Guild Board Member and Adjunct Faculty at the Colorado Women’s College, University of Denver. In the past, she has done fieldwork on lemurs and monkeys, coordinated conservation programs in Africa, and been a stay-at-home mom to three children, one of whom is a dancer. Hilary is a California native, and has a BA from Reed College and a PhD from Yale.