By Jessica Maria MacFarlane
On a snowy night in 1892, The Nutcracker (originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Balletmaster Lev Ivanov) made its first appearance at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. With a dazzling original score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and classical ballet choreography, The Nutcracker became a holiday tradition in the United States a few years after its first full-length American production by dancer/choreographer Willam Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet on December 24, 1944.
95 years after the Russian debut of The Nutcracker Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker premiered in the Brown Theater at the Wortham on December 4, 1987. Since its Houston premiere, Stevenson’s Nutcracker has been performed by Houston Ballet 916 times. During this holiday season, Houston Ballet will honor Ben Stevenson’s beloved version of The Nutcracker with 37 final performances.
Every year a tremendous amount of work goes on behind the curtain to make this production of The Nutcracker a magical event for everyone in the audience. For Act 1 original production designer Desmond Heeley once said, “I want the magic to be gentle and awe-inspiring, not rich, or grand, or brash.” Together with Stevenson’s choreography, Heeley’s designs helped make this version of The Nutcracker a unique experience with quirky production elements, such as little fuzzy rats on pointe fighting with toy soldiers in Act 1 and flying cooks soaring across the backdrop in Act 2.
Keeping the original Stevenson-Heeley holiday spirit alive in over 150 individual costumes and props is a demanding task. That’s why weekly maintenance is essential for Houston Ballet’s wardrobe and production departments. Additionally, each performance of Stevenson’s The Nutcracker has approximately 34 people working backstage to coordinate the scenery, lighting, and costumes.
Costume shop manager Kaleb Babb understands the importance of upkeep. “We do maintenance on the Mice heads every year,” says Babb. “The ears, in particular, get new coatings of liquid latex to make them look fresh and more realistic. Also, the prop dolls that the party children play with in the opening scene come to the costume shop to be repaired every year. Hundreds of kids have played with these toys on stage!”
The snow scene at the end of Act 1 is a classic fan favorite, especially when the weather in Houston is less than wintery. For every performance around 200 lbs. of fake snow made from hand-torn crepe paper floats down on stage and gets recycled for the next performances.
Together with the production team, the dancers during the snow scene add the extra touches of magic before intermission. There are 18 snowflakes dancing on stage for the snow scene at the end of Act 1, along with the Snow Queen, Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince. The Snow Queen’s frosty tutu is valued at $7,000 with layers of soft tulle paired with a crystal icicle crown.
For corps member Jacquelyn Long, this last year performing Stevenson’s The Nutcracker is especially memorable. She debuted as the Snow Queen this year during the evening performance on December 6. “I was happy to get to do this role before we begin Stanton’s The Nutcracker!” exclaims Long. “The girls of the company gave me some sparkly hairpins that every new Snow Queen gets to wear each year as a tradition.”
Whether a snowflake or the Snow Queen, Long’s preparation ritual stays the same. “Before the Christmas tree goes up, standing on the ramp backstage, I do “the twist” and pretend I’m running really fast to get out any last minute nerves before the snow scene and the calm, pretty pas de deux during it.”
Returning to the thrilling solo role of Gopak, Demi Soloist Christopher Gray marks this year by the numbers. “In the solo and the coda, Gopak has 30 jumps,” Gray mentions. “I will perform it 9 times this year; that’s 270 jumps. At approximately 10 shows a year, for over 8 years, that’s a career total of 2,400 jumps in Gopak alone by the end of this run.”
Gray has been a favorite in many beloved roles of Stevenson’s The Nutcracker. But no matter what, he believes in staying in the moment for each role. “Whatever I’ve done in the first act, I put it behind me and start over. During Act 2 I listen to music to psych myself up, take a few deep breaths and step out onstage. When the music starts and I hit the gas and empty the tank. I think that’s what is so exciting about it; People respond to a dancer giving a performance absolutely EVERYTHING they have.”
After nearly three decades of lovely costumes, props, and sets—not to mention new dancers, new audience members, and a new Artistic Director in 2003—we celebrate Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker with a fond farewell.
Tickets are still on sell now by phone or online at http://www.houstonballet.org/TheNutcracker/ with performances running until December 27. The new Nutcracker production for Houston Ballet, by current Artistic Director Stanton Welch, will premiere in November 2016 with new costumes and sets by designer Tim Goodchild.
Jessica Maria MacFarlane is the PR/Marketing Archival Intern for Houston Ballet and writes about dance in Houston for Arts & Culture Texas.