With warm springtime sunshine streaming through the glass, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier danced to the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” Thursday morning inside the Devon Energy Center rotunda.
Flanked by towering toy soldiers, officials from Devon and Oklahoma City Ballet announced that the energy company is donating $500,000 for the dance company to revamp its long-running production of the Christmas classic.
“Not only is it a huge holiday tradition that has been in Oklahoma City for 50 years, but at the same time it is our single greatest line item in revenue on an annual basis. It makes up about 15 percent of our budget income. So it’s an incredible part of the company, not only in terms of what we offer the public –and what’s expected of us from the public – but also what we can do financially to move forward,” said Oklahoma City Ballet Executive Director Shane Jewell.
OKC Ballet’s transformed version of the holiday favorite will premiere in December. In addition to funding new sets and costumes, the gift will allow OKC Ballet to stage 10 performances instead of eight, said Artistic Director Robert Mills.
With one production still to go – the company will perform its season finale, “Beauty and the Beast,” April 18-19 at the Civic Center – Oklahoma City Ballet already has broken two records during its 2013-14 run: for most tickets sold in a single season and for most tickets sold for its annual staging of “The Nutcracker.” December marked the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma City Ballet’s first performance of the perennial yuletide favorite.
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).
American Ballet Theatre principal Maria Tallchief, who died in April 2013 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.
“What’s incredible about breaking a 50-year record this year is our dancers did it with sets and costumes that were up to 25 years old,” Jewell said, adding Devon will be the production’s presenting sponsor for the next 10 years. “Almost every ballet company in the country performs ‘The Nutcracker,’ and in many ways, the quality of your ‘Nutcracker’ is the perception of the quality of your company.”
On Thursday, principal dancer Miki Kawamura and company artist Alvin Tovstogray performed the famous pas de deux, or dance duet, between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavaliar, part of the ballet’s second act, when the young heroine Clara is transported to The Land of Sweets and Toys.
For Mills, the gift will bring even more sweets and toys to “The Nutcracker.” Over the past two months, he has worked with Emmy-winning set designer Gregory Crane and celebrated costume designer Susanne Hubbs on the transformed production, and he showed Thursday an early rendering of a more colorful Land of Sweets and Toys complete with candy and toy factories.
“I didn’t want it to look too cartoonish. I still wanted it to have a sophistication and elegance to it,” Mills said, adding he will be altering some of his choreography to suit the new look.
Although attending “The Nutcracker” transported him to “this magical place in my imagination” when he saw it every Christmas growing up, Jewell said the new production means more than brightening up fond childhood memories.
“This is a statement from the community and corporations like Devon … that they understand this is the next step. You cannot have a top-tier city without top-tier arts and culture,” Jewell said. “It’s about the growth of a city. It’s about what we can do for employee recruitment and employee retention. … Right now, we are competing on a national level as a city, and we need a nationally recognized ballet company.”
Devon Chief Operating Officer Dave Hager said the gift reflects the company’s goal of investing in the communities where it operates.
“Obviously, the ballet is a big part of the thriving arts community here in Oklahoma City, and the arts community (is) a very important part of what makes Oklahoma City such a great city. ‘The Nutcracker,’ it’s a family tradition … and we are so glad that we can help out with this and really take this to an even higher level of excellence and artistry,” Hager said.