It's as much a sign of December as the amped-up traffic around the mall: The nation's ballet companies perform 'The Nutcracker.'
Olympia dance companies Ballet Northwest and Studio West Dance Theatre open their productions of the Tchaikovsky holiday ballet Friday.
To the few uninitiated, the Russian ballet might seem an unlikely holiday story: It’s about a little girl whose favorite Christmas gift is not a Barbie doll or a bottle of Justin Bieber perfume but a menacing-looking nutcracker given to her by her rather odd uncle. The toy brings her strange dreams of fairies, a prince and a troupe of rats.
And yet the ballet, which debuted in 1892, endures, and the directors of the local dance companies can’t imagine staging another ballet for the holidays.
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It’s like leaving cookies out for Santa. You could present him with kale chips instead, but you know what he likes. And the ballet companies know what audiences like.
“Ticket sales for ‘The Nutcracker’ really are far greater than for any other ballet,” said Ken Johnson, who directs Ballet Northwest with his wife, Josie Johnson.
“It’s a built-in tradition,” said Mary Cecelia Zechmann, who with Stephanie Wood directs Studio West Dance Theatre. “We do everything we can to market it, but the marketing is really done for us. Everybody comes to ‘The Nutcracker’ because they’ve always come to ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”
Ballet Northwest did try other holiday ballets in the ’80s and early ’90s. “Years and years ago, Ballet Northwest actually did ‘The Nutcracker’ every other year and alternated with a ballet version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and later with the wonderful ballet ‘Coppelia,’” Ken Johnson said. “But dancers and audiences really enjoyed ‘The Nutcracker’ year after year.”
Also, learning “The Nutcracker” is an important part of a dancer’s education, Studio West’s Wood said.
“If you go off to a college that has a good dance company or you go off to a professional company, they’re going to be doing ‘The Nutcracker,’” she said. “So part of their dance education is to get experience with ‘The Nutcracker.’”
Studio West directors have thought about putting a twist on the plot, Wood said, throwing out the idea of “The Ratcracker.”
“Maybe the rats would win,” she said, then laughed.
“We don’t want to fix something that’s not broken,” she said.
So it is for this year and most likely for years to come, Olympia audiences have their pick of Nutcrackers.
Ballet Northwest’s ‘The Nutcracker’
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus Dec. 20 and 21; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus Dec. 21 and 22
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Tickets: $23-$30 general admission, $19-$26 for students and seniors, $14-$18 for youths (younger than 12)
Studio West Dance Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker’
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia
Tickets: $22.50- $25 general admission, $18.50-$20.50 for students and seniors, $16 for youths (12 and younger)
Number of years production has been going: 29
Number of performances: Eight over two weekends.
Number of dancers: More than 200.
What’s new: There’s a new set for the party scene and some new choreography to go along with it.
“Ballet Northwest has been doing ‘The Nutcracker’ since 1985,” Ken Johnson said. “Over the years, we had replaced the snow scene set and the Act II set, but we used the original set for the party scene. This year, we have an amazing new set.”
Jill Carter, who has worked with Olympia Family Theater and Harlequin Productions, designed the set.
“There’s a much more grand feeling in the room,” Josie Johnson said.
And when the fight scene begins and the house “grows” to fit the scale of the rat and nutcracker characters, the new set creates a magical effect, the Johnsons said.
There also is a new dance, called “Toffee,” in the second act.
“That has some of our most advanced dancers,” Josie Johnson said. “It has music by Tchaikovsky that’s from a symphony. This short piece of music sounds like it should have originally been in ‘The Nutcracker.’ It’s perfect for it.”
Studio West Dance Theatre
Number of years production has been going: Five
Number of performances: Six on one weekend. (The production opened Thursday.)
Number of dancers: 200
What’s new: “This year, we have 100 new costumes,” Wood said. “We have all new Russian costumes; our Dewdrop costume is new. We have new soldier costumes and a new prince costume and a new guardian angel costume.”
In fact, the angel is a new part, coming in at the beginning of the second act.
“We don’t want to get stuck in a rut with our production,” Wood said, “and we don’t want the show to get monotonous to our audiences. So for our snow scene, we have completely new choreography.”
There also is new choreography for the Chinese and mirlitons scenes, both in the second act.
“The mirlitons are sheepherders,” Wood said. “We have little sheep in that scene as well.”