Inside the Oklahoma City Ballet rehearsal studio, dancers leap athletically as they portray Russian candy canes, sinuously intertwine to call to mind Arabian coffee and execute complex footwork en pointe as they depict flute-wielding Danish marzipan candy shepherdesses.
For all the exotic treats it so famously represents, “The Nutcracker” is a staple for the Oklahoma City Ballet.
“It's every ballet company's bread and butter in the United States because it's so popular,” said Artistic Director Robert Mills, who choreographed the version Oklahoma City Ballet has been performing for the past six years.
This year actually marks the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma City Ballet's first performance of the perennial yuletide favorite, said company manager Lynna Schneider, who has been researching the company's history.
In December 1963, the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, under the artistic direction of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers Yvonne Chouteau and Miguel Terekhov, performed “The Nutcracker” with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra at the Municipal Auditorium (now the Civic Center Music Hall).
American Ballet Theatre principal Maria Tallchief, who died April 11 at age 88, danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy in that initial production. Tallchief and Chouteau are counted among Oklahoma's five famed American Indian ballerinas.
“That was the origins of the company,” Mills said. “The first performances were … of ‘The Nutcracker,' and everything built from there.”
Oklahoma City Ballet again will stage eight performances of “The Nutcracker” Friday through Dec. 15 and Dec. 20-22 at the Civic Center. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will play Tchaikovsky's enduring score live at every performance.
“Prior to some of the work Tchaikovsky did — ‘Swan Lake,' ‘Sleeping Beauty,' ‘The Nutcracker' — music was kind of secondary … and if you were composing for ballet, you weren't looked at (as) a serious composer,” Mills said. “Then, Tchaikovsky kind of started composing for ballet and really changed things. It is incredible music, and of course, it's iconic for this time of year. Everyone recognizes many of those pieces of music when they come on the radio. When you're shopping for Christmas presents and it comes through the speakers, you know what you're listening to. It's synonymous with the holidays.”
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, “The Nutcracker” is based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and initially debuted in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The ballet follows a girl named Clara, who receives a handsome wooden nutcracker for Christmas. During the night, the nutcracker comes to life, grows to human size, does battle with the Mouse King, turns into a prince and spirits Clara away to the Land of Sweets, ruled in his stead by the Sugar Plum Fairy. But is the adventure real or just a dream?
“It is a story about a young girl, so when you're taking kids to it, it's something they really identify with,” Mills said. “People growing up in the United States — and it's across the world, but there's something about the popularity of ‘The Nutcracker' within the United States — I personally feel like it is one of the traditions that get passed on from one generation to the next.”
The artistic director choreographed the local production, which bucks the trend of adapting the story to a new time or place.
“I just wanted to give our city a really true, beautiful version — true meaning to the original libretto from its premiere over a hundred years ago. And it is very close … in terms of the classic roles, the classic characters,” Mills said.
“Every year, I can kind of tweak and change and add, whether it's a new costume here, a different set piece here, a little bit of the choreography's different. Every year, our company gets stronger and stronger, so I can elevate some of the choreography.”
“The Nutcracker” isn't just a tradition for audiences: Many of the company members have been dancing in it since they were children. About 80 student dancers from the Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet — some as young as 7 — will perform in this year's production.
“They're just like wide-eyed little does looking at the sets and the costumes and the lights and the dancers. It's so fun to watch that,” Mills said.
“This is my 32nd year of being involved in ‘The Nutcracker,' and it would have been 33, but there was a year when I was a teenager that I missed because I was sick. I myself have gone from a kid in the party scene to directing the company and choreographing a version.”