You might call it the holiday season, but for ballet fans and dancers it’s Nutcracker season.
Alberta Ballet had already sold out three nights at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre to rave reviews when choreographer Edmund Stripe took time to speak about the company’s 10th season with its current version of Tchaikovsky’s famous dance epic, set to play in Edmonton this week and in Calgary next weekend.
“We’re quite proud that it has made it this far, but you do re-visit certain things,” Stripe allows. “When you’re watching the performance you have a little eureka moment and see how things could be done better, that we should be doing it this way instead of that way. So it has evolved since we started to re-design it from scratch in 2006.”
Nutcracker draws on more human resources than any show in Alberta Ballet’s season with up to 120 people involved in the cast. That includes around 35 members of the company, some 60 kids and more understudies. Slightly smaller versions of the Edmonton Symphony and Calgary Philharmonic are conducted by music director Peter Dala. Some dance roles get a custom tweaking.
“It’s a new challenge every year because you have a brand new set of student dancers, bright eyed and bushy tailed and it’s wonderful to see them expressing the joy of dance. In the company, we have a certain turnaround every year and the new dancers coming in each have traits that they’re good at so we tweak the choreography to suit them and to make them shine and make the role their own.”
Because the company puts in as many as 25 performances of Nutcracker each season it also gives younger dancers a chance to rotate through certain roles, to prove what they can do. The story, sets and costumes are a major draw for family audiences, and the show’s popularity helps Alberta Ballet to subsidize some of the other shows in the remaining season.
When you consider that melodies like the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy are among the most recognized works in classical music, it might seem hard to believe that The Nutcracker wasn’t always so popular. The ballet’s premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1892 was not a success.
“It was actually a flop. It was the second part of a two-part bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta in the first half. But the phenomena that the Nutcracker has become started with the Americans when George Balanchine created his version in the 1950s. Now Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the Nutcracker. It’s like your turkey and Christmas pudding.”
As classic dance styles go, Stripe explains that his Nutcracker is a bit of a hybrid.
“It’s a hybrid of the Russian system, the Vaganova method, and the Italian Cecchetti method, which is what I teach now and which was the technique adopted by the British Royal Ballet.”
Born in London, England, Stripe was a student at the Royal Ballet when he got to dance as a tin soldier in Rudolph Nureyev’s production of The Nutcracker and his inspiration dates back to those years. He danced for companies around the world before joining Alberta Ballet in 2002. These days he also doubles as a senior ballet teacher and associate choreographer with the Alberta Ballet School.
For the company’s 10th anniversary show, some of Stripe’s most significant changes were tied to the details of storytelling in mime.
“We’ve done it so many times it’s really like putting on an old pair of slippers and getting on with it, but for a few years now I’ve wanted to change the way the story is delivered in pantomime. It was a little over-complicated and at times, hard to follow. So my mission this year was to revisit the mime, especially in Act 1 where Herr Drosselmeyer is telling his own story via the dolls that he brings on. So I’ve tried to synthesize and clarify that mime and, hopefully, his story will be all the more obvious.”
Drawn from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, The Nutcracker And The Mouse King, the ballet is set around Christmas Eve celebrations at the Stahlbaum home. Daughter Clara is thrilled when her godfather, toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer, presents her with a nutcracker in the shape of a toy soldier. As Clara falls asleep toys come to life in a dreamscape, her Nutcracker turns into a prince and whisks her away to an enchanted land. Along the way, tin soldiers face off against a rat king and his legion, and the story offers a series of character dances among the most loved in ballet.
Alberta Ballet’s version models toymaker Drosselmeyer after Tchaikovsky’s appearance in real life.
With: Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra
Where: Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
When: various times Dec. 14 to 16, and Dec. 21 to 24
Tickets: $41 to $145 from Ticketmaster (1-855-985-5000 or ticketmaster.ca)