Discovering Stanton Welch’s THE NUTCRACKER (Part 3 of 3)

There’s more to a shoe than meets the eye. We’re talking pointe shoes, character shoes, ballet slippers, worn by dancers of all ages in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker and throughout the entire year. The third and final facet we’ll be discovering in this three-part blog series takes us into the crucial world of ballet footwear. We chat about the history of shoes in past productions of The Nutcracker and snap some behind-the-scenes photos with our Shoe Coordinator, Molly Searcy.

Watch our video promo for Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker below:


“‘Tis The Season”

It’s that time of the year again! The winter holidays basically mean full out Nutcracker season for many ballet students and professionals across the country. Just think about how many pointe shoes and ballet slippers have been used in countless Nutcracker performance since the 1892 premiere? Your guess is as good as ours!

This ballet is steeped in history and tradition. The historic St. Petersburg, Russia premiere of The Nutcracker in 1892 occurred during classical ballet’s ‘golden age’ when tutus and pointe shoes in their infancy dominated the stage alongside traditional European pantomime.

The early days of pointe work didn’t look like what we see today though. After knocking off the heels of dance shoes, flat ballet slippers became more common on stage, and for women were lightly reinforced to broad specifications by individual dancers. So, at that time you wouldn’t have seen the Sugar Plum Fairy fabulously balancing en pointe  for seconds on end to Tchaikovsky’s score. But even without today’s pointe shoe theatrics, ballerinas of that era trained their feet endlessly to reach maximum strength and dexterity. 

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Dancers of the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg in Lev Ivanov’s The Nutcracker. 1892. Photographer unknown.

Five decades later pointe shoes and ballet slippers evolved, and The Nutcracker made its first full-length premiere in America under dancer/choreographer Willam Christensen at San Francisco Ballet, which has been performed annually in different versions since 1944. It was shortly followed by the world premiere of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet in 1954–now the  reigning production in America by number of individual company performances across the country.

These early inaugural productions in the U.S. utilized evolved pointe work across the stage thanks to twentieth-century advancements in choreography and pointe shoe construction. Female roles were more visibly challenging, and the men rose to the occasion too with more complex choreography in those famed divertissements. 

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Dancers of San Francisco Ballet in Willam Christenson’s The Nutcracker. 1944. Courtesy the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco, California.

Our Nutcracker history at Houston Ballet begins in 1967 at the Society for the Performing Arts where dancers Judith Aaen and Anthony Sellers performed the “Grand Pas de Deux” from Act II of Lev Ivanov’s The Nutcracker. This beautiful excerpt was on a mixed repertoire program under the care of our esteemed former Artistic Director, Nina Popova.

Houston Ballet has three full-length productions of The Nutcracker in our repertoire: the first was staged by famed choreographer and dancer Frederic Franklin in 1972 at the Jones Hall, the second was staged by our former Artistic Director Ben Stevenson with designs on loan by Peter Farmer in 1976, and the third was also staged by Stevenson with custom designs by Desmond Heeley in 1987. Our cherished Stevenson-Heeley production of The Nutcracker attracted more than 77,000 ticket buyers annually for 29 consecutive years before its Houston retirement in 2015.You can discover more about our Nutcracker history in our post from last year. 

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Judith Aaen and Anthony Sellers in the “Grand Pas de Deux” from Act II of Lev Ivanov’s The Nutcracker. 1967. Houston Ballet. Photographer unknown.

This year marks another Houston Ballet world premiere–a new Nutcracker production created by our Artistic Director Stanton Welch with set and costume designs by Tim Goodchild, lighting design by Lisa J. Pinkham, and projection design by Wendall Harrington. A massive amount of work from so many different people have been put into bringing this classic tale to life in a grand new vision.

We’re excited to share our magnificent Nutcracker with everyone for years to come! 

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Artists of Houston Ballet, HBII, and Houston Ballet Academy with Artistic Director Stanton Welch and Maestro Ermanno Florio from Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

But before we jeté into the Shoe Room, we wanted to take a moment to applaud our hard working company dancers. In between holiday performance of Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker, our company dancers also had to prepare and perform in the different repertoire selections during our annual Jubilee of Dance, which also required more pointe shoes and more ballet slippers!

Supple pointes had to be broken-in by the company women performing in the opening ballet, George Balanchine’s Serenade. Sleek black pointes and black ballet slippers were required for the final selection of Jubilee night, Stanton Welch’s Divergence. We shared those two shining Jubilee of Dance moments from the wings on our official Instagram account:

 

Artistic Director Stanton Welch's 'Divergence' closes out the 2016 Jubilee of Dance! #houstonballet @houstonballet

A post shared by Houston Ballet (@houstonballet) on


And just like all of our productions throughout the year, Nutcracker preparations for company, HBII, and student dancers usually begin with their feet. And as the holiday season fast approached, everyone continued to sew ribbons and elastics on countless amounts of slippers and pointe shoes.

It's Saturday!! Get your dancing shoes ready!💃🏻💃🏽 #houstonballet #pointeshoes

A post shared by Houston Ballet (@houstonballet) on

So without further ado, Shoe Coordinator Molly Searcy graciously shared some insight on her preparations for this year’s incoming overflow of shoes from the Nutcracker. We also snapped some fascinating behind-the-scenes photos.

Enjoy!

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Welcome to Houston Ballet’s Shoe Room! You might have seen our corps dancer Alyssa Springer visiting Molly during our pre-recorded segment for this year’s World Ballet!

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“Since opening Nutcracker, an average day as Shoe Coordinator starts with reading and answering email, followed by checking Nutcracker notes, and logging what the dancers take from their shoe baskets in the morning. Then, I usually walk across our skybridge to the Wortham, organize the Academy Nutcracker shoes before that evening’s performance, paint some elastics and ribbon at the shoe painting table, head back to the Shoe Room, go downstairs and pick up packages from the coat closet, unpack them in the Shoe Room and place them in their proper bins, log everything in Excel, and help a few dancers with shoe fittings sporadically throughout the day.”

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“This summer, I sat down with Tim Goodchild’s costume sketches and created an Excel workbook of projected Company and Academy Nutcracker shoe needs. In the subsequent weeks, I met with Artistic staff (Stanton Welch, Tim Goodchild, Laura Lynch, and Wardrobe) to review, revise, and approve Nutcracker footwear. Once we had a working shoe list, I began placing orders.”

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“Black shoes—both slippers and pointes—are essential to this production. Some Company ladies already had black pointes in their shoe baskets; for those who did not, we ordered special fabric dye to turn each pink pointe into a black one. I love all the different shoes in this beautiful new Nutcracker, but I’d have to say my favorite are Columbine’s red pointe shoes with red ribbons. They’re the only red pointes in the show, and they pair so beautifully with the white Columbine costume!”

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“The most challenging aspect of this production was Academy shoes. In Houston Ballet’s former production of The Nutcracker, there were only a handful of Academy boys and girls in the cast. Now, our new Nutcracker involves over 300 students! Depending on role assignments, each student requires 1 to 3 pairs of slippers, all in a variety of colors, with different colored elastics.”

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“The Academy shoes were fitted and supplied by Sharon Brookhart and her amazing team at Costumes and Dancewear. Once I received all the Academy shoes in mid-November, I got them prepped and ready for dress rehearsal. I had about 5 days to sew on all the colored elastics and label the inside of over 600 pairs of shoes. The process was grueling, but I took a note note from the dancers and their recovery methods. After a long day of rehearsal, dancers often ice their legs and feet to minimize inflammation and speed recovery. So, I iced my hands at the end of every night of sewing/labeling, and it kept me going!”

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“We’re using LOTS of ballet shoe brands for this production and throughout the year: SoDanca, Bloch, Freed, Sansha, Gaynor Minden, Body Wrappers, Suffolk, and Repetto.”

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[Someone’s a Star Wars fan! Principal dancer Sara Webb’s signed pointe shoes and her special shank tape, which help keep the soles of her feet comfortable.]

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[The well-used underside of one company dancer’s rehearsal pointe shoes. The lifespan of a pointe shoe varies for each dancer and performance. Once a pair of pointes are dead though, they’re really dead!]
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[Custom order notes for Principal dancer Melody Mennite’s pointe shoes. It can take years for a professional ballet dancer to find the right shoe specifications with their brand of choice.]

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[Some of former company dancer Emily Seymour’s pointe shoes. When one dancer leaves the company, sometimes their shoes stay in our Shoe Room with hopes of being passed down to company and academy dancers who use the same brand, style, and size.]
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[It’s not all about pointe shoes in our Shoe Room. Here’s a small sampling of the many character and street shoes that were used during our recent performances of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite.]

 

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[Some hidden Houston Ballet history: Demi-Soloist Katelyn May uses the same shelf that former company dancer Naomi Glass once used.]

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[One can never have too much crushed rock rosin! Rosin has been used on the underside of pointe shoes and other dance shoes for centuries to help reduce slippage on floors and on stage.]
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[Each of the company men have their own ballet baskets, filled with personalized flat slippers of all colors and brands. They get fittings and can put in special orders just like the women do with their pointe shoes.]


Tickets for Houston Ballet performances of The Nutcracker are on sale now by phone or online at our website with performances running until Tuesday December 27.

That wraps up our three-part blog series about Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker here at ‘En Pointe.’ In case you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, go ahead and browse through our archives for more great Nutcracker related posts, like our Q+A with Derek Dunn in 2013 and Katelyn May’s memories from 2007

From all of us at Houston Ballet, we wish you happy holidays and a happy New Year! And thank you for supporting Houston Ballet!

*All Photography from the Shoe Room taken by Jessica Maria MacFarlane

Jessica Maria MacFarlane is the PR/Marketing Archival Intern for Houston Ballet. She’s a Texas State University alumna, an active member of the Society of Dance History Scholars, and a freelance dance writer for Arts & Culture Texas and Houston’s The Dance Dish.

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