It's difficult to imagine a holiday season without a production of “The Nutcracker.” But the ballet's premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg 120 years ago this month, didn't exactly make a lasting impression on Russian audiences.
Indeed, had it not been for the orchestral suite Peter Tchaikovsky extracted from his ballet, which did become a favorite in the concert hall, “The Nutcracker” might never have developed into the success it enjoys today.
This week, the Oklahoma City Ballet will present what has become an anticipated holiday tradition, a fully staged production of “The Nutcracker” featuring the Oklahoma City Philharmonic conducted by Joel Levine.
Choreographed by Robert Mills, the production will feature Tye Love in the dual roles of Hans and the Nutcracker Prince. Amanda Herd, Da Young Jung and Callye McCollum will alternate as Clara; Jung, McCollum and Miki Kawamura will alternate as the Sugar Plum Fairy; Io Morita, Yui Sato and Alvin Tovstogray will alternate as the Cavalier.
“I started dancing because I thought ‘The Nutcracker' was the coolest thing when I saw it at age 4,” Love said. “Here was this larger-than-life character, a prince who saved Clara from the Mouse King.
“For me, it's about finding moments to connect with Clara. Hans is a little bit older than Clara but not quite an adult. He's a little more reserved in the party scene (that opens Act I) but ultimately, he loses his inhibitions and falls in love with her.”
Herd's love for ballet also dates back to her childhood. As a young dancer who participated in numerous productions of “The Nutcracker,” Herd wondered if she'd ever have the opportunity to portray Clara, the young girl who is magically transported to the enchanted Kingdom of Sweets.
“I look back and remember being mesmerized by the holiday,” Herd said. “I've always loved Christmastime because I had such a joy for dancing. My parents never had to talk me into going to dance class.
“For me, Clara was the ultimate role; she was everything about ‘The Nutcracker.' She's a young girl coming of age who has romantic feelings for someone for the first time. She's in that place between a child and an adult. It's really a story about finding herself.”
Dancers face a twofold challenge in any ballet. The combination of extreme athleticism and visual beauty means that dancers have to make their work look effortless. That's never easy when the choreography includes leaps, sword fights, dancing en pointe and fluidity of movement.
“You have to have a lot of stamina to go from the party scene into a snow pas de deux,” Herd said. “It's also important to keep your energy up when you're sitting on the throne in the Kingdom of Sweets.”
Love echoed Herd's concerns about stamina in the first act and the lengthy stretch in the second act when his character Hans is more of an observer than a participant. The latter requires a special type of diligence to convey involvement in a scene when he's not especially active.
“I'm on stage for the majority of the ballet and sitting on the throne in Act II is not much of a break,” Love explained. “You have to look alive or the audience won't be involved. You learn how much the smallest subtle details matter.”
Those issues become paramount when one considers that ballet dancers don't have the luxury of speech. Every emotion, from anticipation to unabashed joy, has to be conveyed through carriage, gesture and facial expression. As Norma Desmond said in “Sunset Boulevard,” “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!”
“An actor can say something to express an emotion but a dancer has to embody that,” Herd said. “I have to show the audience that Clara has feelings for Hans but at the same time, she's shy. Without speech, you have to give the audience time to read your gestures. It's a fascinating process to convey what your character is thinking.”
A number of family activities are planned during the run of “The Nutcracker.”
At all performances, kids are invited to create a keepsake Christmas ornament. Guests can meet the cast, have photos taken with Santa and attend a milk and cookies reception at all matinee performances.