“A holiday tradition that seems as old as Christmas trees and mistletoe.”
That’s what Renee Montagne said three years ago this month on NPR’s “Morning Edition” when she discussed, with NPR’s classical music commentator Miles Hoffman, the tradition that’s grown up around Christmas-holiday performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker.” But as Miles Hoffman told her, the first complete production of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet in the United States didn’t take place until Christmas Eve 1944 in San Francisco. In fact, Hoffman said, “It wasn’t until the 1960s that performances of the complete ‘Nutcracker’ ballet really took off as an annual Christmas tradition around the country.”
For this KSMU “Sense of Community” report I decided to look at Springfield Ballet’s lengthy history of presenting a “Nutcracker” production just about every year since the 1985-85 season. During rehearsals for this season’s run, which took place December 15-18 at the Landers Theatre, I asked Springfield Ballet staff, dancers and parents about the company’s ongoing “Nutcracker” tradition.
I figured the best place to start was with the Ballet’s Artistic and School Director, Ashley Paige Romines, who directed this year’s revival. As I hoped, she has her own theories about the latter-day popularity of “Nutcracker” in the U.S. “What I think really launched its popularity in this country was when (George) Balanchine’s version was first televised, because anyone—it didn’t just have to be the ‘elite’ going to the theater—everyone suddenly was able to enjoy the performance and watch it in the comfort of their living rooms.”
[As an aside, let me add some background. The Balanchine video of “Nutcracker” dates from 1993. But to tie Romines’ comment in with Miles Hoffman’s dating of the work’s popularity to the 1960s, there WAS a televised “Nutcracker” in the latter half of the ‘60s that I remember seeing. It only ran four times between 1965 and 1968. It was a co-production between the CBS Television Network and one of the West German television networks, shot on film in a German studio but featuring two stars of New York City Ballet: Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. It was a heavily cut version of the 90-minute ballet, to be sure: it ran only 59 minutes... and that included commercials! It was also narrated throughout, both on-screen and in voiceovers, by one of CBS’s popular stars of the period, actor Eddie Albert of the sitcom “Green Acres.” But while it may not have been perhaps an ideal video presentation of “Nutcracker,” it was certainly my introduction as a nine-year-old kid, not only to Tchaikovsky’s music in its proper context, but to some superb dancing by McBride and Villella.]
“The other thing that also, I feel, makes (Nutcracker) popular in this country,” continues Springfield Ballet’s Ashley Paige Romines, is the number of children’s roles. You rely heavily on a lot of children being involved in the production. And so that instantly makes it a family tradition, because you have all these kids that grew up doing “The Nutcracker,” and then they remember performing in it, so then they bring THEIR kids to do it.”
Of course, Romines says, the sheer familiarity of Tchaikovsky’s score doesn’t hurt, nor does the stage spectacle. “Yeah, it’s the magic of it. And then there’s the score, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. And brightness, and bubbly energy. It’s a feel-good story, happy ending. It’s not a tragedy,” she chuckles. “We’re excited to be able to continue the tradition here in Springfield. And I think the (Springfield Ballet) founders that started that first production really hoped that it would become the annual tradition in Springfield that it has.”
“Nutcracker” has been presented by Springfield Ballet something like 30 times since the production’s debut in 1985—not every season... but awfully close! And as Romines suggests, there are several area families for whom Springfield Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is not only a tradition—it’s a legacy.
At a VERY busy Saturday-afternoon rehearsal for the 2017 “Nutcracker,” I met Brandy and John Houk. Both of their kids, Madeleine and Ethan, have danced in “The Nutcracker” for years. So, for that matter, did Brandy when she was young. “I started with Springfield Ballet doing ‘Nutcracker’ when I was seven. We now have five families that are second-generation. I danced with all of them when we were young together, and now all of our kids are dancing. And it’s very exciting.”
Adds John Houk, “Madeleine has done ‘Nutcracker’ since 2012 when she was five years old. And Ethan started the year after that. He is thirteen and she is ten. He, I think, was a little bit jealous of the attention (Madeleine) got, and decided he could do that.”
At the rehearsal I also talked with three teenage members of the “Nutcracker” company—Anna Hall, Grace Kirksey, and Sophia Hom—all of whom have continued not only to study year after year at Springfield Ballet School, but to dance in “The Nutcracker.” Anna and Grace have been involved for nine years, and Sophia for eight years. And Anna and Grace both have family connections to the company, and to “Nutcracker.” Anna Hall’s older sister Maria, she says, “grew up here and she’s coming back to be the Sugar Plum Fairy.” (Maria Hall came down from the Kansas City Conservatory of Dance to perform as a guest artist this season.) Grace Kirksey says, “I also have an older sister (Emma) who’s now an instructor here (at Springfield Ballet), but she was in ‘The Nutcracker’ as well for many years.” Asked if she has any family connections in the company or the show, Sophia Hom has to admit, “No—I’ve tried to get my brother to dance, but,” she says with a laugh, “he’s not that interested, so....”
Adds Anna Hall, “It’s definitely a tradition with my family and me. Every year it’s a thing we do, and it’s just become such a big part of what we do around Christmastime.” And Grace Kirksey declares, “It wouldn’t really feel like the holiday season with ‘Nutcracker,’ I guess, for any member of my family.”
In fact, both girls’ family members are involved behind the scenes, working the concession stand, ushering, and working on costumes. So “The Nutcracker” at Springfield Balelt could definitely be considered a “family tradition” this time of year.