“The Nutcracker,” a fantasy-fueled story of a young girl who dreams her toy prince to life and follows him through magical lands, debuted as a ballet in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century with choreography by the ballet master Petipa and music by Tchaikovsky. But it didn’t become an American holiday tradition until after World War II, when George Balanchine staged his version for the New York City Ballet and the ballet caught fire as a Christmastime production. In fact, most international companies consider “The Nutcracker” as only one of many classical ballets, filing it alongside “Giselle” and “Swan Lake,” not a holiday-specific show.
“American culture is very good at having specific things you do in specific times of the year. It’s one of the things I admire about the civilization here,” says artistic director Bruce Simpson, a Scot who performed all over the world before moving to Louisville to helm the company. “One of those thing is ‘Nutcracker’ at Christmas.”
Now, Simpson says it’s a cultural marker, woven into the fabric of how Americans mark the passing of another year (he’s been staging the ballet, in one role or another, since 1964). Tchaikovsky’s iconic music and the basic storyline remain constant, but different versions of the ballet crop up across the country every December. The Louisville Ballet has been performing “The Nutcracker” since the 1960s. Their current production, “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker,” featuring choreography by Val Caniparoli, debuted in 2009.
“It still has all the elements of the original production from the 1890s in St. Petersburg, and certainly most productions adhere to the basic tenets and basic choreography that we know from that time. For example, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux, or the Russian dance,” says Simpson. “It captures the imagination in the sense that it reminds every adult of the childhood they remember and it reminds children of what holiday Christmas can be all about, holiday parties and the fantasy fairyland.”
Last year, during the Louisville Orchestra’s shuttered season, the Sugar Plum Fairy danced to recorded music. But a recent gift from the Brown-Forman Foundation will allow the orchestra to accompany the ballet during performances in the first two weeks of the run. Simpson says this partnership is a part of Louisville’s “cultural firmament” he’s happy to see return.
“This is really important to the cultural foundation of the city,” he says. “So I’m very, very thrilled to have them back in the pit.”
Tchaikovsky’s score is as recognizable as the storyline itself, and Simpson says he believes the composer’s work is highly approachable, even for those who know little to nothing about classical music.
“The big pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince in Act Two is basically the do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do scale played backwards,” he points out.
Approachable and ubiquitous. Tchaikovsky’s score has appeared everywhere from Disney’s “Fantasia” to television commercials, becoming more and more present during the Christmas holiday season.
“It gets a bit much to someone in the profession like me—every single store and airport you walk into, you’re listening to ‘The Nutcracker’,” says Simpson with a laugh. “I think to myself, every year, oh my goodness, I have to try to rehearse another ‘Nutcracker.’ But the minute I walk in the door, and I have the dancers in front of me, to find out what they’re going to bring and their special talents, it becomes so inspirational.”
Simpson says one of his joys as artistic director is seeing his dancers develop and move up the considerable cast list (“about four feet long and two feet high”), honing their craft over the years, moving from dancing a snowflake in the corps de ballet, to small featured roles, to a star turn.
“It’s also a marker for the dancers themselves,” he says. “This year, you have someone like Kateryna Sellers, doing Sugar Plum Fairy, and Leigh Anne Albrechta, dancing the principal part in the Waltz of the Flowers for the first time. “
Simpson’s company—backed by two casts of more than 40 student dancers each—will dance a variety of roles during the run of the production.
“We don’t have one or two Sugar Plum Fairies, we have seven,” he says. “You will go see a matinee on a Saturday and one of our dancers will be doing the Sugar Plum Fairy, and that evening she’ll be dancing the mother in Act One and the Waltz of the Flowers in Act Two. If you have a favorite dancer, you should phone the Ballet box office and ask when they’re doing the role you want to see.”
That versatility means slight but significant differences between performances, even for a show as well-known as “The Nutcracker.” The choreography, which is copyrighted, stays the same, but Simpson likens ballet choreography to a play’s script. Just as every actress playing Lady Macbeth brings her own unique self to the role, so do his dancers.
“You have Natalia Ashikhmina, who comes from Siberia. Great Russian tradition, beautiful Russian dancer. She’s going to approach it from a completely different point of view than Erica de la O, who’s Latina from Los Angeles,” says Simpson. “ They have their genetic history and their culture that they’ve come from.”
“The Brown-Forman Nutcracker” runs through December 23. The Louisville Orchestra will accompany performances on Dec. 8-9 and 14-16. Patrons who have already purchased tickets for the 21-23 and wish to exchange them for a performance featuring the orchestra should contact the Louisville Ballet box office or the Kentucky Center.