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Review: Frazier Museum’s Nutcracker Exhibit Enhances This Holiday Tradition

This holiday season, “The Nutcracker” continues a Louisville tradition that’s lasted decades. This year’s motto for the Louisville Ballet’s Brown-Forman Nutcracker is “everything it’s  cracked up to be.” And the Ballet is adding lots of ancillary programming to live up to this assertion.

The most substantial of this programming is at the Frazier Museum: “Nutcracker The Exhibition: 60 Years of Magic and Majesty” runs through January 7, 2018. If you are a long-time fan of “The Nutcracker,” you’ll feel very much at home as you experience this exhibit. For Nutcracker neophytes, this is a great introduction to the holiday classic.

Frazier Museum

Three generations of Louisville Ballet leadership have contributed to this lovingly-imagined homage to “The Nutcracker.” The ballet has been performed in Louisville since 1952; through the mid-1970s, selections were performed by the Louisville Civic Ballet, paving the way for today’s full-scale extravaganza.

The bulk of the Frazier exhibit focuses on the 1983 and 1995 versions of “The Nutcracker,” though there are also some costumes from the current version, which was re-tooled in 2009. The 1983 version was designed by celebrated English designer David Walker and, in 1995, Alun Jones helmed the design. Several items have been loaned by former co-artistic directors Jones and Helen Starr, including a handful of costumes that they brought from London in the 1970s for their earliest productions of “The Nutcracker.”

Frazier Museum

It is in the displays in which artifacts from three or four of the ballet’s versions are stationed side-by-side that the straight line across the generations of design are most clearly seen — the influences of one designer on another, the ineffably English vision of both Walker and Jones — while being distinct unto themselves. Walker prefers painted detail on his costumes, Jones intricately-placed trim, sequins, and paste jewels. Both of these styles reach well beyond the footlights to delight audiences.

The exhibit is set up so that you go through the story chronologically. Act One introduces the Stahlbaum holiday party, including some delightful pictures and costumes from Hannah Jones (daughter of Jones and Starr) the year she played the young daughter who receives the famous nutcracker doll. If you look closely, you can glimpse how some of the magic works.

“Intermission” takes visitors backstage for a sneak peak of the world of the dancers and rehearsal. If you have a tradition in your house of marking the height of the children, check out the rigorous height requirements for the various children’s roles. You’ll learn that Louisville’s own leading ballerina Wendy Whelan began her career as a mouse in “The Nutcracker.” Check out the collection of pointe shoes: each dancer receives 22 pairs of shoes each year. And there are some pairs that you can pick up and explore, too.

The bulk of the exhibit is dedicated to Act Two and the various transformations that occur. Dioramas give visitors an opportunity to make it snow, and there are costumes and props available for dress-up. A delightful contribution to the exhibit is a deconstructed tutu suspended from the second floor ceiling over the stairwell.  With 13 layers of tulle creating the iconic silhouette, the deconstruction creates a chandelier-like elongation of bodice and skirt.

The earlier years of the Louisville Ballet and “The Nutcracker” are detailed in a timeline dating back to 1952 – the year that the performance was so popular that Mayor Charles Farnsley and his grand-daughter couldn’t get seats in Memorial Auditorium. The 1983 version moved into the Whitney during the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ inaugural year.

“Nutcracker The Exhibition: 60 Years of Magic and Majesty” at the Frazier is an exhibit that celebrates Louisville’s rich cultural life as well as the richly-detailed work of designers for the ballet.

The Brown Forman Nutcracker runs December 9 – 23, 2017.