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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012

Milwaukee Ballet’s Holiday Tradition

Getting Comfortable with The Nutcracker

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In the darkness and cold of winter, we draw together for comfort. Holiday traditions help us find our lives again through the rituals we share. As a tuxedoed cabaret crooner, I return to the classic holiday standards every year, and (knock on wood) they work their magic, connecting listeners with the passage of time. The songs are always better than I’d remembered.

Although The Nutcracker is popular worldwide, the United States is unique among nations in that every major city has its own annual production. The Milwaukee Ballet has performed the work in its entirety since 1977, with new scenery and costumes since 1998. Artistic Director Michael Pink created the current choreography and staging in 2003 and has tweaked it to perfection. He adjusted the story to close its narrative gaps but left it firmly as a piece with tradition. He made small changes to the scenery and costumes that he inherited. Set pieces move more easily, and the lead male dancer isn’t strapped for the whole second act in the nutcracker soldier’s uniform. There’s an ongoing effort to refurbish the disintegrating rat heads worn by dancers in the battle scene—blind mice indeed!

When Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker debuted in St. Petersburg in 1892,  the ballet was essentially a design project. The story was far less important than the stage effects, a common preoccupation of late 19th-century theater before movies were invented. Like many productions of The Nutcracker, Pink’s version revels in the theatrical transformation of scale from human to toy. He allows this to mirror other transformations in the story: child to adult, winter to spring, waking to dream, first love.

The music has everything. It’s youthful and sweet with tributes to the folk songs of various countries but, because it’s Tchaikovsky, there are passages of very adult loneliness and yearning. The rat battle is both sinister and exciting. The snow music is lovely in the children’s choral harmonizing but frightening in its incessant driven figures. The “Waltz of the Flowers,” somehow both stately and delirious, seems to glory in the majesty of rebirth after the long Russian winter. The final adagio is full-out tragic, but it’s followed by the exotic delicacy of the Sugar Plum Fairy music and a galloping finale.

This is as rich a ballet score as was ever composed.

I am privileged through my role as critic to have seen the Milwaukee Ballet production for the last three years, and my affection for it keeps growing. I view the character of the toymaker Drosselmeyer as a 19th-century theater director. He dazzles the folks at the Christmas party with stage magic tricks. He initiates young Clara’s silly rapture of a dream by giving her a nutcracker carved as a soldier. He is the impresario of her dream.

A sensitive girl, Clara picks up on Drosselmeyer’s matchmaking scheme. With encouragement from the children’s mother, the toymaker maneuvers his young male assistant Karl to meet Clara’s teenage sister Marie. Clara then dreams Karl into the nutcracker solider and Marie’s cavalier. Their love is gentle and hopeful. Clara’s brother Fritz is also in the dream but behaving better than in real life where we’ve seen him introduce a dead rat to the holiday party.

The Nutcracker
shows the strength of the company’s dancers. The choreography is difficult. The cast includes the main company, the slightly younger members of the professional training company and the children of the Milwaukee Ballet Academy. With the orchestra, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and the stage technicians, 230 individuals are required to make this show happen.

Performers return to roles in the annual production with new understandings and fresh interpretations. There’s considerable room for improvisation. Because a ballet is not a machine and dancers are not interchangeable, this production is also about the company’s transformation as dancers mature and vanish, and others arrive to work their way to the bigger roles. Pink compared it to a sports team. “It has natural points of change,” he said. “Is this a pivotal year?  I’d say yes. The Nutcracker shows the company at its best and also provides a glimpse into its future.”

The Milwaukee Ballet performs The Nutcracker Dec. 8-26 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

John Schneider is Assistant A&E Editor at the Shepherd Express, teaches theater at Marquette University and sings torch songs with his own orchestra.