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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008

Soundtrack for the Season

Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker

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You've heard the melodies before. "Trepak," energetic and bold, or the delicate and playful "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"-both musical pieces have been employed in television commercials to encourage shoppers to get into the holiday spirit. Indeed, if the gift-giving season had a soundtrack, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's familiar, engaging score for TheNutcracker ballet would be it. Though it was composed in the last decade of the 19th century, the rich ballet is timeless; a beloved holiday tradition to be performed year after year.

The Nutcrackeris a two-act ballet about a young girl, Clara, who falls asleep holding a nutcracker doll she received as a Christmas gift. Her dreams take her and her siblings into a magical realm populated by imaginative characters and fantastical events.

Milwaukee Ballet has performed a full-length version of The Nutcracker since 1977. When internationally renowned choreographer and dancer Michael Pink began his tenure as artistic director of the company in 2002, he committed himself to raising the bar for the whole organization. One of his priorities was to improve Milwaukee Ballet's version of The Nutcracker. Pink has accomplished this feat by making the ballet more challenging-technically and dramatically-not only for those creating the piece, but also for those watching it.

Because of the nearly 20 Nutcracker shows Milwaukee Ballet performs in one season, "It is the best investment we have in terms of dancers getting an opportunity to grow as artists," Pink explains. Milwaukee Ballet's resident company includes 25 professional dancers, along with 18 participants in its accredited Milwaukee Ballet II program, a two-year study for pre-professional students striving to become professional dancers. Pink says that if artists are consistently challenged, they won't be able to rest on their laurels or grow disinterested in their performances.

To keep them on their toes, Pink varied the casting for his presentation of The Nutcracker in such a way that dancers who have performed in the same role multiple times will have the opportunity to play a different character. Pink has also created multiple casts for The Nutcracker, so any one dancer will be able to perform three different roles over the course of the show's run. Even flowers and snowflakes are expected to be on point. According to Pink, this type of quarter ballet work, which is performed mostly by Milwaukee Ballet II students, is often simple and not necessarily challenging. So the director bolstered these roles by including more complex and interesting choreography.

Pink's interpretation of The Nutcracker promises to add more detail to the narrative and give clarity to the relationships between the story's characters. Audiences can expect to see more of Fritz, Clara's younger brother. To appeal to the teenage set, Pink has given Clara an older sister, Marie. The young woman falls in love with Karl, who ultimately becomes the Nutcracker Prince. Together with the character of Drosselmeyer, the children's guardian on the journey, as well as the Snow Queen, Pink has given a large scope of the audience a character to relate to.

"Depending on how old you are and where you are in your life, you can watch the production from a completely different perspective," Pink says.

Layers of Interest

As a design concept, The Nutcracker requires seamless transitions between contrasting scenes; for example, moving from the Land of Sweets to the parlor scene at Christmas. Pink and his team of set and lighting designers had to be creative and resourceful to capitalize on the opulent scenery available to them. To make the whole stage look alive, Pink deviated from the traditional practice of allowing secondary characters to be still while they watch the main character perform a solo. Instead, everyone on stage is active and moving.

Add the Milwaukee Children's Choir and Milwaukee Ballet School dancers to the mix, and the audience has layers of interest to captivate them. Uniting every element of the ballet is Tchaikovsky's inventive score, performed by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. With more than 40 tenured musicians, Milwaukee Ballet is one of the few dance companies in the country to maintain its own symphony orchestra.

"I believe Milwaukee Ballet's production of The Nutcracker fits all the criteria of being something that will be engaging to our audience, challenging for the artists, and it will give a new look to what otherwise is a traditional story," Pink adds.

The Nutcracker runs Dec. 12-28 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

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