Let’s get crackin’

Dayton Ballet’s Nutcracker keeps on giving

By Arnecia Patterson
Photos: Scott J. Kimmins

If any ballet can be said to have entered the psyche of popular culture, The Nutcracker is a contender. Professional and student, regional and national ballet companies and a handful of contemporary dance companies use it as a repertory mainstay that garners a large percentage of their total ticket sales income each season. Just since introducing a new rendition of the ballet in the 2013-14 season, the Dayton Ballet counts close to 30,000 people as the audience for The Nutcracker performed at the 2,100-seat Schuster Center in downtown Dayton, making it the most popular of all the versions to choose from in the city. Additionally, the Dayton Ballet reaches beyond its professional dancers to supply the large cast needed for The Nutcracker. The entire company, plus over 100 student and pre-professional dancers, are culled from its training companies and area dance schools through auditions. The populace features of The Nutcracker—magical dolls, ϋber-adorned Christmas trees, choreography for children and desserts that grow and dance—account for the ballet’s vast appeal to dance companies and their audiences. In the dance world these are festive symbols of the season, and this year the Dayton Ballet is expanding its ticket programs and endowing more people with chances to make their own memories.

A Connection to the Community-Made History

When Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov premiered The Nutcracker to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1892, the ballet was criticized for much the same reason it is so beloved today—its entertainment value. The pure classicists, balletomanes and critics of that day resented its departure from court dance strictures in favor of theatrical devices and banished it to a category of “ballet féeries” that implied low-brow art. It was not a compliment.

The original version was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” about a little girl’s nutcracker toy coming to life and defeating the evil mouse king in battle. Both the ballet and the story begin with a holiday gathering of family, friends and children playing with their Christmas toys. Dayton Ballet artistic director, Karen Russo Burke, sets her choreography in the fictional home of the Silberhaus family where it is gathered for a holiday dessert party. The table is laden with sweets that are given a dancing life in the second act of the ballet. Before the desserts don their costumes, designed by Lowell Mathwich, with decorative and color features—blood orange, green tea and the swirls found in that unique staple of Christmas, ribbon candy—children are cast as soldiers and rats in the first act. The nine performances over Dec. 11-21 require multiple casts of small children. The children help to comprise a larger and more diverse cast than other ballets require, and in practice, what has followed is a larger, more diverse audience than other ballets attract.

Sweets, Treats, and the Defeat of Evil

The universal features of The Nutcracker provide a canvas for the theatricality that was once considered low-class and deplorable by the aristocratic ballet audiences of 1892. Its narrative’s memorable touches first conceived by Petipa and said to have been evoked by his Christmas memories—the snow scene, toy soldiers, drawing room games and candies—are a frame of reference easily made by viewers, whether in reality or through pervasive fictional accounts of what the holidays should entail. Gift giving, parties, Christmas trees, snow and desserts are staples in The Nutcracker. Favorite dolls that come to life and bad dreams stamped out by magical trips to a land where everything is sweet and dances are tropes fantastically waiting to be re-imagined. The creative treatment of those touches and how each choreographer expounds on them is what sustains the appeal of The Nutcracker.

Despite early criticism, The Nutcracker endured. From its premier until now, it has been part of the classical ballet canon for over a century. George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, choreographed a version in 1954 that spurred new growth in its popularity. His is said to have been made based on his memories of the original by Petipa, which he saw growing up. In addition to Balanchine’s premier of his The Nutcracker having been a box-office boon for the New York City Ballet, CBS broadcasted the ballet on Christmas day in 1958. Its popularity spawned the beginning of a thrust by Balanchine to rally the American public around dance and the arts in general, and he played a visible role, over the next two decades, in a relatively popular campaign considering ballet was its subject, to bring people to the theatre and art to the people.

A Renewed History of Giving

The 19th century audiences for Petipa’s original The Nutcracker cried foul based on their propensity to use tastes in pastimes as a way to maintain social hierarchy, but the Dayton Ballet operates from an opposing organizational viewpoint and goal. With the understanding that The Nutcracker is a dance that people of all ages find entertaining, yet remains elusive for a significant swatch of the public, it has ushered its own holiday tradition of giving that is more in keeping with the joyful overtones of the dance itself. Armed with a mission that explicitly refers to “a unique place for diverse audiences to experience arts and education vital to life,” the ballet is using this year’s production of The Nutcracker to increase the number of tickets it provides to public service organizations whose constituencies serve young children and teens, and to military families.

According to Angela Whitehead, communications and media manager for the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, the Dayton Ballet has a tradition of offering free tickets through its contacts at organizations that include Big Brothers/Big Sisters, A Special Wish Foundation, Hope Foundation of Greater Dayton, and Daybreak, among others. The purpose is to give children, who would not be able to attend a performance, a chance to see professional ballet on stage. This year the effort to reach even more people by offering free tickets to The Nutcracker will be expanded through a partnership with the Dayton City Paper.

“Because the ticket offerings in the past were so well received, and the organizations were so grateful for the opportunity to provide tickets to their children, DPAA has decided to expand the program to offer tickets to even more children this year,” said Whitehead. To that end, the Dayton City Paper is giving away 1,500 tickets to various not-for-profit organizations that focus on at-promise youth.

“There is something special about The Nutcracker and its ability to enchant audiences of all ages. If we can introduce kids to this kind of magic in hopes of creating life-long audience members, then we are doing our job,” said Wanda Esken, associate publisher.

Another popular ticket program in which the Dayton Ballet participates is the Military Appreciation Program, and according to DPAA director of corporate giving, Amber Rose, it will be expanded this year as well. The past two seasons have offered military families two tickets to any DPAA performance in a season. This year, families can claim four tickets—two in the beginning of the season and two after January 2016 through the end of the season. The program, sponsored by management and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, offers complimentary tickets to active-duty military, retired veterans with ID cards and Wright Patterson Air Force Base government civilian employees in the Miami Valley area. Currently in its third year, the Military Appreciation Program has provided the community with over 4,000 tickets to arts performance by the DPAA, and The Nutcracker is by far the most in-demand ballet on the Dayton Ballet’s schedule. Each season, over 500 tickets are claimed by families who want to enhance their holiday with the liveliness for which the ballet is known. In order to claim the tickets, families can call or visit the box office at Ticket Center Stage. The tickets are available for pick-up within 30 days prior to the performance.

“Vets and active duty families reach out to the programs presenting sponsor, Booz Allen, to let them know how much they appreciate the tickets,” said Rose. Booz Allen has been the presenting sponsor of the Military Appreciation Program since its inception and remains so for the 2015-16 season.

The opening party scene of Dayton Ballet’s The Nutcracker is filled with gaiety and family cheer, but the family pet is missing. Only on stage—the lobby is another matter. To round out its effort to create a full ballet experience for families, this year the company is partnering with the Humane Society of Greater Dayton in what is affectionately dubbed the “Muttcracker.” The event has taken place at Ballet Nebraska, in Omaha, with the Nebraska Humane Society. According to Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive/artistic director of the Ft. Wayne Ballet in Indiana, that company has partnered with the city’s Animal Care and Control division for six years to place 60 animals into homes during The Nutcracker performance run. And yes, a “Muttcracker” is cast and has a non-dancing role on stage during the show.

At the Dayton Ballet performances on Dec. 12, 13, 19, and 20, the Humane Society of Greater Dayton will have dogs available during intermission and after the performance for families to move one step closer in their consideration of adding a pet to their midst on a permanent basis. There is a cost that generally ranges between $75-300 and is dependent on the age and size of the dog. Additionally, there is an application process that may include checking in with a vet for shot records if a prospective family already has a pet in the home. According to Genevieve Villegas, event coordinator and development associate, the Humane Society of Greater Dayton encourages pet adoption all year long; however, it realizes that the holidays are a specific time when the possibility is even more present.

“We provide our animals at events in order to facilitate the adoption process,” Villegas says. “If there are pets or children in the home, the society recommends a ‘meet and greet’ at the facility where the pets are kept. We encourage thoughtfulness and consideration for the fit between the pet and its family.”

From the days of 1892 until now, the spectacle worthy of outcry in The Nutcracker has become a mere springboard for fantasy and creativity; an experience that has endeared the ballet’s images in the hearts and minds of many. The Dayton Ballet’s expansion of free ticket programs for The Nutcracker harkens to the spirit of holiday giving and memories the season can build in the manner it did for its most famous choreographers. As for the dancing blizzards of ethereal snowflakes, desserts come-to-life and triumph of good over evil, who knows? One of the children who receive a free ticket may be the future choreographer of the next iteration of the holiday classic. Just in time for the 21st century.

The Dayton Ballet will present nine performances of The Nutcracker on Friday, December 11, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 12, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 13, 2:30 p.m., Friday, December 18, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 19, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, December 20, 2:30 p.m., and Monday, December 21, 4:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.ticketcenterstage.com or by calling (937) 228-3630 or (888) 228-3630. After each performance, there will be an event called Behind the Ballet where audience members can ask questions of the dancers and other on-stage participants in “The Nutcracker.”


Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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