Dancing with the Tsars
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American audiences are very familiar with The Nutcracker, as it has become a beloved piece of our annual holiday celebrations and Tchaikovsky’s music the soundtrack of the season. While most cities have the opportunity to have their local ballet company stage yearly productions – and this city has the esteemed Fort Wayne Ballet to its credit – there are also companies which tour and share their own take on the classic.
When Moscow Ballet visits the Embassy Theatre on December 7, it brings not only a familiar story but its own unique, decidedly Russian take on the tale.
The cast will include a traveling corps of 40 professionals, but also features local talent in the cities that they visit.
“We begin advertising for local students a few months before we perform in the city,” says Moscow Ballet’s soloist and audition director Anna Radik. “We go to different ballet schools or dance schools and find students who have at least one year of experience in ballet. Those auditions take an hour, or maybe two hours, and then we rehearse with them so they can learn the choreography. They have two or three months to rehearse before they perform. These students then fill roles like the snowflakes, the snow maidens, the mice and are in the Arabian and Chinese roles in the second act. It’s a once in a lifetime experience for them to perform with a professional company.”
Radik herself, who has been with Moscow Ballet for four years, performs as a parent, a snowflake and in the Arabian scene. She says the dancers do sometimes change roles, though this year she is in the same roles as last year, but with new choreography. Moscow Ballet tours regularly, not just during November and December when they perform The Nutcracker. They also tour with productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. But it is this show – which they call The Great Russian Nutcracker – which they infuse with elements that are very much part of the Russian history and culture.
“We feature the full Tchaikovsky score and open with a large dome with the Moscow skyline,” says Radik. “We also have full-size Matrushka dolls in the snow scene. A part that is exclusive to Moscow Ballet is the duet which features two dancers wearing wings, and one wing is 20 feet long. It’s amazing.”
Those scenes, the “Land of Peace and Harmony” (which substitutes for the “Land of Sweets” typically staged here) and “Dove of Peace,” are part of Moscow Ballet’s effort to infuse the show with uniquely Russian touches. The history of The Nutcracker as a ballet dates back to the 19th century and very much centers itself in Russia. Moscow Ballet proudly shares this history on its website.
“The origin of The Nutcracker, a classic Christmas story, is a fairy tale ballet in two acts centered on a family’s Christmas Eve celebration. Alexandre Dumas P?re’s adaptation of the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. It was commissioned by the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, in 1891, and premiered a week before Christmas 1892. Since premiering in western countries in the 1940s, this ballet has become perhaps the most popular to be performed around Christmas time. The story centers on a young girl’s Christmas Eve and her awakening to the wider world and romantic love. The composer made a selection of eight of the more popular pieces before the ballet’s December 1892 premiere, forming what is currently known as the Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, as is heard in Moscow Ballet productions. The suite became instantly popular; however the complete ballet did not achieve its great popularity as a Christmas performance event until almost 100 years later.”
There are a few narrative changes to that which is most familiar to American audiences, says Radik. While most productions open with the party scene, and the character of Drosselmeyer arrives as a somewhat mysterious figure, in the Moscow Ballet version, that character is established from the beginning.
“The story opens with the toy maker in his workshop, just as the book does. It is there that he prepares his wondrous toys he plans to bring to the Christmas Eve party. He wants to surprise and delight all the children at the party. From there it is the same as most shows with the party scene and the grownups dancing while the children are playing. And of course Masha – or Clara in America – falls in love with the Nutcracker Prince.”
Although only with Moscow Ballet for four years, Radik brings much experience with her, especially considering how young she still is. At the tender age of 10, she was invited to attend the renowned Kiev State Opera and Ballet Theater and graduated with a diploma of distinction in 2009 with a Choreographic Teaching Degree from National Dragomanova Pedagogical University, also in Kiev. Her ability to work with very young children (the recruited cast members range in age from seven to 17) in cities around the world makes these productions of The Great Russian Nutcracker possible. There’s very little rest for the weary this time of year, and Radik, when asked if they get to have a relaxing Christmas, admits that the dancers of Moscow Ballet will have to wait a little longer for a reprieve.
“In January. We will get a break in January.”