“Mommy … Mommy,” Nick said, tapping his mother’s shoulder.
“What?” she whispered back to him.
On stage, over a dozen children from the School of American Ballet frolicked about a party scene, clad in petticoats, satin ribbons, copper buttons and starched collars. A large Christmas tree twinkled with lights and the trumpets sounded a joyful ditty. A little girl named Clara had just received a shiny new Nutcracker and her impish younger brother Fritz was already plotting to steal it with his posse of friends.
“Mommy,” Nick tapped her again. He pointed to the children onstage. “I want to be up there.”
Nicholas Smith ’16 — now one of three artistic directors for the Yale Ballet Company — was only two years old when he first saw a production of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet. He still remembers how magical it was, how he started listening to the music nonstop and flitted around his bedroom for months pretending to be the Prince.
The Nutcracker is a holiday crowd-pleaser, especially in America, where Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score infiltrates radios, malls, holiday Hallmark movies and gas stations across the country. Audiences still delight in the tale of a little girl named Clara who, through the magic of her godfather Herr Drosselmeier, is gifted a nutcracker doll who comes to life in her dreams as a prince and sweeps her off to the Sugarplum Fairy’s snowy kingdom, the Land of Sweets.
Yet there is something ever-wonderful and strange about The Nutcracker that particularly strikes a chord with many young dancers. Nick’s young fascination with The Nutcracker is one that nearly every aspiring ballet dancer has felt. Maybe it’s the charming and dramatic melodies, the extravagant costumes, the graceful pas de chas of the marzipan reed pipes or the toy soldiers that come to life with grand leaps and pirouettes.
Eliza Quander ’16, another member of the Yale Ballet Company, remembers watching the older girls lace up their pointe shoes before going onstage for the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” thinking about the day that she too would wear a glittering white tutu and borré across the stage. And Lance Chantiles-Wertz ’19 aspired to partner the brilliant Sugar Plum Fairy as her Cavalier.
This week, members of the Yale Ballet Company will be able to live out their childhood dreams as they dance selections from The Nutcracker in their fall show, which opened last night at the Off-Broadway Theater.
“As kids, we never got to do the big roles in the ballet, and now we have the chance to do the roles we’ve always dreamed about,” Smith said.
Much of the choreography of the Yale Ballet Company’s Nutcracker excerpt comes from George Balanchine’s version, now the most popular Nutcracker choreography in the United States. When Balanchine premiered the ballet in 1954, it was a dream come true for him as well. He created it as the first full-length work presented by the New York City Ballet, and much of its choreography was inspired by Balanchine’s own youth, when he danced roles such as the Prince and Mouse King in productions by the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.
The Yale Ballet Company’s excerpt also draws on iterations of The Nutcracker’s original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, which premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in December of 1892.
“It’s part of the art form to dance to traditional, previously choreographed things,” Smith said.
Laura Fridman ’16, who choreographed the Marzipan number, said that she referenced a number of recorded versions available online and synthesized various canonical versions into a piece that is appropriate for the size and technical skill of the Yale Ballet Company.
Yale Ballet Company’s excerpts deliver a lovely rendition of the steps that have delighted audiences for years. The costumes are colorful and simple, and the music is intimate and lively with a full orchestra comprised of musicians from student groups, including the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the Saybrook College Orchestra and the Davenport Pops Orchestra, under the musical direction of Patrida Rangchaikul ’17.
A highlight of the show is the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” restaged by Madeline Skrocki ’17. The dancers move in and out of beautiful formations on the stage — each one unique like a snowflake — as they perform intricate footwork and challenging extensions. The other group piece that steals the show is the “Waltz of the Flowers,” with its cheerful mood, graceful turns and crescendoing melodies. The final pas de deux of the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier danced by Valy Menendez ’18 and Chantiles-Wertz is the most dramatic, graceful and technically beautiful number in the show.
As merely an excerpt of the full Nutcracker ballet, the Yale Ballet Company’s performance lacks a bit in its storytelling. We do not get any of the delightful opening party scene, and the excerpt does not include Clara or her Prince, two of the most recognizable figures of the ballet. Instead, the ballet opens in the magical Land of Sweets without an introduction.
Smith explained that the ballet company chose to perform only selections from The Nutcracker so that the second half of the performance could choreographed by students. This gives the audience a chance not merely to watch the dancers of YBC perform a holiday classic, but also to perform their own dream-like creations that are not related to The Nutcracker.
“Our show in the spring will be a full-length ballet and won’t give members of the company the opportunity to choreograph original pieces,” Smith said, adding that it is always great to see what members of the company come up with in the fall show. The second act has great rang — from classical pieces like the “Russian Dance from Swan Lake” choreographed by Olga Gorelkina to more contemporary numbers like “Underwater” by Fridman and a piece choreographed and performed by Quander that is set to the poem “And Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.
Jane Smyth ’16 said that the two distinct acts of the show touch on both tradition and invention.
“We get to think about ballet’s legacy,” she said. “What is ballet in America if not Balanchine’s Nutcracker? Yet in our show, we get to consider the new possibilities of ballet, too.”