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History Lesson: 40 Years of BalletMet’s “The Nutcracker”

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: 40 Years of BalletMet’s “The Nutcracker”
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With the holiday season now in full swing, it’s time to take stock of a few of the many special Christmas season productions that are upon us. Being born and raised in Reynoldsburg and having lived my entire adult life in Columbus, there are many that are very near and dear to my heart.

One of my favorite traditions has been to sing the JOY! Concert with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus (Now in its 28th year!) This year, the theme is “Make the Yuletide Gay,” and the guys have been working so hard to polish up some remarkable tunes. It’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. It’ll be presented at King Avenue Methodist Church on Friday, December 8 and Saturday, December 9 at Lord OF Life in the North end on Sunday, December 10.

Another is visiting the Ohio Village at the Ohio History Connection for a Dickens of a Christmas, which will go the weekends of December 8 through 11 and December 15 through 17. The carolers are always amazing, and the food at the Colonel Crawford Inn served during the Dickens Dinner is delicious. Plus, there are shops and fun experiences to be had throughout.

However, perhaps the most meaningful to me this year is a memory that my mom put together for our family when I was a senior at Reynoldsburg High School in 1983. She insisted that we all get very dressed up – she even bought a new outfit for herself of a stylish black velvet dress with a lace collar – and attend BalletMet’s presentation of the Nutcracker at the Ohio Theatre.

My folks had always encouraged our theatrical hopes and our musical endeavors, but we had never gone to any type of dance performance, let alone the ballet. I’ll be honest — I do remember moaning and groaning a little. But, I also recall how excited my little sister Beth was to get all dressed up to go Downtown to see the dancers.

Once there, I was transfixed with the architectural grandeur of the theater and all the stars painted on the ceiling. (Even now, some 30-plus years later, when I’m there I try to count them) I’m not so certain that my dad was exactly thrilled to be there, but he was so proud to share with us that his grandfather was one of the workers who contributed to its construction. I was wide-eyed, listening to his story of how my family’s history was somehow tied to the State Theater of Ohio.

Then, the symphony began to play the opening notes of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece, and I was transfixed. The sets were stunning, the costumes gorgeous and the dancers moved with flawless grace, style, and uniformity. It was a night I’ll never forget, and as a tribute to my mom, it’s the subject of this edition of History Lesson: The 40 year history of BalletMet’s beloved classic – The Nutcracker.

According to a December 9, 1999 Barbara Zuck article in the Columbus Dispatch,

“The city’s first full production of the world’s favorite holiday ballet, The Nutcracker, was performed on Dec. 27, 1969, in the newly saved Ohio Theatre.

The Columbus Civic Ballet danced the work for the first few years and, in 1974, was succeeded by Ballet Metropolitan. (The company, now known as BalletMet Columbus, turned professional in 1978.)”

One of the initial founders of BalletMet, and even now some 40 years later a highly respected BalletMet Board Member, Nancy Strause, recently shared with me some of the details of those early years.

“The Ballet Company that danced the Nutcracker at the Ohio Theater in ’69 ended up having some financial troubles in 1974. That same year, Ballet Metropolitan, Inc. was incorporated and secured a 501(c)(3) status, naming former Russian ballerina and teacher Tatjana Akinfieva-Smith as Artistic Director,” Strause said.

The fledgling civic company was closely aligned with the Metropolitan Ballet School, owned by Jack and Daryl Kamer. Daryl Kamer served on the faculty and continues that role in today’s BalletMet Dance Academy. The ballet school was the initial way we cast young dancers for the Nutcracker, and the civic company of stipended dancers was further augmented by dancers from Butler University.”

“Our first costumes and sets in those years were rented from Butler University,” Strause continued. “They were terribly threadbare and falling apart. Both sets and costumes were quite elaborate as they were initially used at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. We did our performances then as now at the Ohio Theatre. Fortunately for us in 1977, before we went pro, Russell Hastings was able to design new sets for our use.

“To me, the Nutcracker is a timeless magical holiday tradition that became a real ‘Happening,’” she said. “It’s also the production that financially carries BalletMet.”

Strause then shared that in the summer of 1978, BalletMet received a significant seed money grant from Battelle Memorial Institute Foundation, enabling it to attain professional status. Wayne Soulant was named the company’s first Artistic Director, and, following national auditions, he assembled a company of 13 dancers who premiered their first program on October 13 at Sullivant Hall.

New costumes in ’83

The emerging organization had announced it would again perform the Nutcracker, and Wayne set about the business of teaching his new choreography for the ballet to the dancers. Principal dancer, David Jordan, was able to design and stitch together new costumes as well.

The professional debut of the Nutcracker was held that December at the Ohio Theatre with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra for a total of five performances.

“We danced that Nutcracker for five years,” Strause said. “In 1983, we produced our first All New Nutcracker with Wayne doing completely new choreography and Campbell Baird designing new sets and costumes.”

The next change came in 1987, as the new Artistic Director John McFall, choreographed his own version, still using the Baird designs.

In 1992, Ballet companies around the world staged scores of new Nutcracker productions as it was the 100th anniversary of the ballet.

The story was originally based on Story-teller E.T.A. Hoffman – a 19th century German author. The 1816 telling was what inspired Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and was first premiered in St Petersburg, Russia. Like the productions of today, this version featured dancing children.

A Columbus Dispatch article dated November 29, 2000 gives further insight into the 1892 performance:

“For the premiere of The Nutcracker, all the students in the dancing school were used in a variety of roles, and the students did more than just dance. One day, a group was given toy instruments such as horns, whistles, cuckoos and rattlers by the conductor. They had been specially ordered for the ballet and tuned according to Tchaikovsky’s direction. Although they never mastered the instruments, the students eventually were told to play the best they could and were said to have made “a joyful noise on stage.” 

After the first performance, the students received thanks and large baskets of special candies from Tchaikovsky. However, because the critics of the premiere performance in St. Petersburg were not used to seeing children take leading roles, they found them to be irritating and distracting.”

Tchaikovsky also composed the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy with the then brand new instrument – celesta – in mind. That is what gives that particular passage its distinctive sound.

BalletMet was in the vanguard of ballet companies performing completely revamped Nutcrackers. That year there were 230 different Nutcrackers performed, but only four completely brand new editions.

Scott Brown, a BalletMet dancer from 1986 – 1995, recalls the premier of the new Nutcracker over Thanksgiving 1992 in of all places, Anchorage, Alaska.

“Wayne’s Nutcracker was very simple, and this one was grandiose. It was set in Russia to promote the history of the ballet. Our then Ballet Mistress Violetta Boft was from Russia, and John consulted with her often to make certain all of the elements were in keeping with the Russian theme. Violetta was constantly reminding us that, ‘The Nutcracker is like the circus, it is not high art. Folks attend to be entertained,’ and she was absolutely right, as there was so much pomp and circumstance surrounding this production,” Strause shared.

“The new set took up every inch of space backstage at the Ohio Theatre. We really had to figure out how to make our entrances and exits without knocking things over. I mean, it opened in a Faberge egg and then it was like ‘Boom!’ with the giant tree and the elaborate Mother Ginger and her Matrushka dolls and the knives and forks that were used as swords. It was really just a lot of great fun!”

It came to be known as the Centennial Nutcracker, and everything was brand new thanks to the generous funding of Nationwide, which was rumored at the time to be $500,000. John McFall created new choreography, Peter Horne designed new sets with the afore-mentioned Imperial Russian theme, and Judanna Lynne designed new costumes for the production.

In 1994, just a few years after the centennial, BalletMet hired David Nixon to be their new artistic director, and like his predecessors, he staged his own revamped Nutcracker in 1995 with new choreography by himself and Gerard Charles. In 2001, David Nixon created his definitive version.

Nutcracker productions are frequently tweaked every year with additions of new business and choreography for the performers or new magic tricks by Herr Drossellmeyer – the mysterious gentleman who presents Clara with the iconic Nutcracker. (Strause recalled that on at least one performance, a duck to be used in the magic act suddenly got loose and flew into the orchestra pit causing momentary pandemonium.)

Strause noted that “Ballet Met’s longest-running Nutcracker is the charming version conceived and created by Artistic Director Gerard Charles and Robert Post in 2004, with new choreography by Gerard Charles and a narrative voiceover by actor Sean Connery. This beloved family-friendly version is still captivating Columbus audiences.”

However, since the topic is “icons,” our very own BalletMet produced what many consider to be the iconic Nutcracker poster. It was photographed by D. R. Huff in 1981 and shows a little redheaded girl dressed up in a tutu that is much too large for her holding a wooden nutcracker.

Lauren Kane Eskovitz was that little girl and became the accidental icon, because her mother was on the board at the time and they needed a model.

“All I really remember is them curling my already curly red hair and promising me that after the shoot, I could wear her tutu. She wore it in a recital when she was in the 3rd grade,” said Eskovitz.

Strause added that the shot was not what the ad agency doing pro-bono for the ballet had intended.

“Lauren showed up in a beautiful green dress for the shoot, but afterwards, when she was tired and a little grumpy,” Strause recalled. “Her mother then made good on her promise to let her wear the tutu and that is the image that was used.”

Eskovitz shared with me that she doesn’t have a copy of the original green dress version but that friends report “sightings” across the globe. Additionally, it’s apparently quite a popular image for powder rooms.

“Everybody thought that since I was in the poster, I must be a prima ballerina, but my sister Cynthia was so much better,” said Eskovitz. “I was a mouse, a candy, and a party girl in the Nutcracker. I did the Nutcracker for most of my childhood, and even though I missed lots of sleepovers, I loved every minute of it and today take my own daughters to see it here in Washington, D.C.”

This season, Artistic Director Edward Liang will showcase his 40th anniversary production of the Nutcracker at the Ohio Theater, with a large cast featuring 152 students from the BalletMet Dance Academy.

“This is our 40th anniversary season at BalletMet, and the one constant production we’ve brought every year to our fans has been ‘The Nutcracker.’ We love the opportunity to perform in front of tens of thousands of central Ohioans each year with this beloved production,” Liang said. “It’s wonderful to have our professional company and our academy students working together to create this show for Central Ohio.”

“Approximately 27,000 people came to our performances last year, and we look forward to delighting even more patrons with our 40th anniversary Nutcracker performance this year,” said BalletMet Executive Director Sue Porter.

BalletMet will present The Nutcracker at the Ohio Theater from Friday, December 8 through Sunday, December 24. I’m very much looking forward to attending the tale of the imaginative Clara, the nutcracker who turns into a prince, the Mouse King and the Sugarplum Fairy this year and hope that no ducks come flying out into the audience…

1978 Nutcracker program cover

Nutcracker dancers Wayne Soulant and Marie Pfeuffer rehearsing as Dr. Drosselmeyer and Clara

For further information on all of these traditions, please visit the following websites:

BalletMet: balletmet.org
Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus: cgmc.com
Ohio History Connection: ohiohistory.org

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