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Winslett: Why the Richmond Ballet performs ‘Nutcracker’

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Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012 12:00 am

People often ask me why the Richmond Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” every year. This year — the 10th anniversary of our current production — is a good time to reflect on that question. There are many reasons.

First, audiences like it. Attendance is consistently strong and our patrons maintained their loyalty even during the worst of the recession. We like to think that this derives from the quality of our production, but we also know that the real source is the ballet itself, which was first performed 120 years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“The Nutcracker” is, first and foremost, a perfect holiday fantasy. It begins with the warmth and excitement of a large, elegant family holiday party, with presents, guests and dancing around an elaborate Christmas tree. It continues through a child’s dream with fantastic adventures that engage anyone from the tiniest child to the most jaded grandparent. Along the way there’s real virtuoso dancing, by the elegant Snow Queen and King, the sinuous snake and her charmer, and the sparkling Sugar Plum Fairy with her Cavalier. All are performed to a glorious score by Peter Tchaikovsky, beautifully rendered live by the Richmond Symphony. Anyone who’s ever heard a note of music already knows much of this score, whether he or she has ever heard of “Nutcracker.”

Research shows — and all my experience bears out — that shared experiences are what matter in the long run. People forget presents; they remember adventures, times shared together and especially holiday rituals. “Nutcracker” appeals because it’s a family adventure as well as every child’s dream. It stays appealing because families have gone to it, remember its happy associations, and want to rekindle them over generations at this time of year.

“Nutcracker” is also important for the Richmond Ballet in many, many respects. As a great classical ballet, it fulfills that portion of our mission that calls for preserving and presenting, with excellence and integrity, works of enduring value. It is also a large, complex production — multiple casts, 91 roles per cast — that exercises our full array of skills over a long performance run. The professional dancers must learn and perform multiple roles in all three casts; students must dedicate substantial time around school for rehearsals and performances. The technical demands — costumes, lighting, props, sets, even “explosions” — are huge, and they challenge the skills of even our backstage wizards.

The multiple roles for young dancers, such as Little Mice, Lambs and Mother Ginger’s children, provide a bonus focus for young ballet students and a glimpse at an early age into the magic of high-level professional performance. Little Mice become Claras, or Soldiers, or Flowers. Claras, and Soldiers and Flowers, go on to become professional dancers — sometimes in the Richmond Ballet.

Our Clara from 1994, Valerie Tellmann, has been in the company 12 years now and has danced almost every role including the Sugar Plum Fairy. She has just written a beautiful illustrated book about our “Nutcracker,” in which she counts her childhood immersion as having been the pivotal experience in her decision to become a dancer. Other “Nutcracker” children go on to “normal” lives, but are enriched forever by their “Nutcracker” experiences ranging from absolutely exhilarating beauty to truly excruciating hard work.

“Nutcracker” is a principal source of ticket-sales revenue for our company, as it is for almost any company with a good production, even though we maintain a policy of keeping a portion of every house available at prices only slightly above that of a movie ticket. I’m grateful for that, because those revenues enable us to fulfill another of our core values — that of bringing dance, and its potential for awakening and uplifting the human spirit, to places where it could not otherwise go.

“Nutcracker” revenues support the entire Richmond Ballet — the professional company, the School of the Richmond Ballet and our education programs such as youth performances for Title I schools and our Minds in Motion (which now reaches some 1,300 students annually in 18 Richmond-area schools). Without these programs, from which we draw in talented children (and support their study where needed), we wilt. This “Nutcracker” does not just appear. It is the product of a healthy, active institution in this community that performs, trains and educates while representing the commonwealth at home and abroad in ways that we hope make all citizens proud.

Finally, we like to do things well. We already knew we had a good production before the head dance critic of The New York Times pronounced it one of his very favorites two years ago, and expressed — in print — his wish that every state in the Union could have a “Nutcracker” like ours. We don’t mind this kind of confirming data. In the meantime, we welcome the opportunity to continue to bring “Nutcracker,” and all it signifies, to our fellow Richmonders and to whoever else wishes to experience its magic.

Stoner Winslett is artistic director of Richmond Ballet. Contact her by email at tdolphin@richmondballet.com or by telephone at (804) 344-0906.

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