A Peek at the New 'Nutcracker'
By Jared Bowen
It is a sunny, late September afternoon at the Boston Ballet building on Clarendon Street. There’s enough chill in the air to suggest that winter is indeed coming and the holidays are not far away. For a group of girls aged 12 to 16 lining the wide staircase leading to the third-floor rehearsal hall, Christmas is already here. It’s the day of Nutcracker auditions for the iconic role of Clara, the girl whose Christmas Eve dreams spirit her away to a land of battling mice, dancing Sugar Plums, and a reigning Snow King. The company’s artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, bounds out to greet them. “Are you excited?” he asks, as his broad smile draws out the girls’. They nod and giggle nervously—for good reason. Landing the part of Clara would be a major coup, likely the showiest role of these young dancers’ brief but budding careers. After a few words of encouragement Nissinen disappears back into the studio. In their pastel-colored tights with their hair pulled into tight buns, some of the girls return to their stretches. Then all at once, they’re called to perform.
Inside the studio, three members of Boston Ballet’s artistic staff are seated at a long table to preside over the auditions. It has a reality-show feel—think America’s Got Talent or American Idol, only the judges around the table appear to be sweet-natured. They’re all smiles and encouraging nods. Except for children’s ballet mistress Melanie Atkins, who is visibly anxious for her flock. Atkins oversees all students involved in any of the Boston Ballet’s company productions. She runs the audition and will assist in casting decisions. Because auditions are open only to Boston Ballet students, the girls are like her own. “I hate this part,” she says. “I don’t want to make eye contact because I know all of [the children]. I don’t want them to think I know what the decisions are.” She leads the girls through their brief audition choreography. “Fly,” she implores them. “Take the entire studio and really fly, girls!”
Competition is at the heart of this process, but the Ballet does everything it can to dilute it. “We go about it as nicely as possible,” Nissinen says. “We see who handles the material in what way, and eventually we make the decision between the ability of the material, the personality, acting ability…” Their run-through complete, Atkins explains that they will audition in pairs and then lines them up against the back of the studio. From the judges’ table, two numbers are called. The girls walk to the middle of the room, and accompanied by a pianist situated in the corner of the hall, they dance for the staff.
They do seem to fly, moving swiftly through the hall in a series of jumps and leaps—a combination of Nutcracker choreography crafted by Nissinen himself. Their arms are spread wide, bright smiles soften their faces, and their steps are solid. If they’re nervous, it doesn’t show, though the range of talent is evident, as some struggle to lift limbs or simply move with decidedly less polish and grace. Within what seems like a few minutes all the girls have danced. Nissinen rises and proclaims, “I like what I see, and I see what I like!” The girls laugh and the tension dissolves—but only for a moment. The artistic staff gathers to confer. They murmur, point at their notes, and occasionally glance toward the girls. Meanwhile the Clara hopefuls are lined up against the barre, opposite the studio’s soaring mirrors. Some of the girls look stricken with abject terror, as if the rest of their lives depend on what the judges decide; others look around with complete insouciance. They’re all asked to dance again and then are ushered out of the room. The entire Clara audition is over in less than an hour—and then the wait begins. It will be a week before they learn whether they will be one of the four lucky young women to work on The Nutcracker’s most visible role.
This year’s Claras are literally the first to dance into a new Tchaikovsky dream as Boston Ballet stages an entirely reimagined Nutcracker. Beloved as the Ballet’s Nutcracker may have been, ranking among the most attended productions in the world, it had withered with age. “The production was too old. They do have a shelf life,” Nissinen says. “So we said let’s turn the page and do something even greater.” It was Nissinen’s goal to re-create the classic with lavish new sets and costumes, mindful, he says, that The Nutcracker is often the first ballet people see. The new production, the first commissioned in nearly 20 years, cost $2.7 million. It also marks the completion of Nissinen’s own choreography with a newly crafted opening and close to the ballet. “I want the dance to be delicious,” he says, and he wanted sets and costumes to match that vision.
After a year-and-a-half search for a costume and set designer, Nissinen tapped Robert Perdziola, an award-winning designer who has created sets and costumes for The Metropolitan Opera and American Ballet Theatre, as well as other top opera and ballet companies. “The two of us discussed at great length what this new Nutcracker should be,” Perdziola says. “We were not interested in doing anything edgy or retro.” Instead, the most radical change? The pair elected to make The Nutcracker even more classic.
The new production moves back 15 years, with Nissinen and Perdziola placing the ballet in southern Germany in the 1820s, a time when the Regency style prevailed in the European decorative arts and fashion. Popularized in France by Napoleon I, the neoclassical revival embodied a taste for clean-lined simplicity, which Nissinen wanted reflected in his dancers’ costumes. “The dresses are not so voluminous, but actually show the elegance of the dancer’s bodies better,” he explains. “[Perdziola] is incredibly detail-oriented. He understood when I said classic—it has to feel like a classic.” In addition to studying the time period, the designer took his cues from ballet itself. “I see a direct marriage between the ballet world and design,” Perdziola says. “The physical sensitivity to the line of a leg, an arm, the tilt of a head, is equivalent to the sensitivity involved in getting a color right, in finding the right net that can float, in perfecting the cut of a tunic.”
Perdziola designed the costumes for each of The Nutcracker’s 182 roles—creating 40 detailed sketches and a host of small pencil sketches for everything from the lushly attired Drosselmeier, Clara’s guardian; to the elaborately jeweled Dew Drop; to the colorfully coordinated clowns, the Harlequin and the polichinelles. It was an 11-month-long endeavor, says Charles Heightchew, manager of costumes and wardrobe. “In addition to making the tutus and tunics and skirts, the Sugar Plums’ tutus and the Dew Drop costumes each have 3,500 to 4,000 jewels. Multiply that by three costumes [one for each dancer assigned to every role], and there’s a lot of work to be done,” he says. To meet deadlines, the Ballet hired 15 artisan shops, from costume makers in Ontario to dyers in New York to a milliner in Kentucky. The bulk of the work, though, was done by the Ballet’s own staff.
The costumes were particularly labor-intensive. The larger stones on the Snow Queen’s bodice and tutu, for example, were meticulously sewn on by hand. Not to mention the painting of fabric and the soldering of tiaras. This couture-like decorative work will be evident from the front row to the last, says Heightchew. “Each layer where another color is added in fabric or painting or jewels—it adds a different visual element. You may not be able to pick out [the extra detail] individually, but you’re aware of it in the depth in the costumes.”
For the set design, Nissinen and Perdziola also took their cues from the Empire style, which featured ornate details, imposing columns, and lavish finishes. But for set changes, the pair turned to the modern and cinematic. They crafted a series of reveals where scenes appear to telescope out of one another. The ballet opens in the town square with Drosselmeier, imagined here as a theater impresario, presenting a performance in his Children’s Theatre. “We progress from the small-town scene into the living room Christmas Eve party all in shades of beige, brown, tan, muted,” Perdziola explains. “When the tree grows we go into color. It’s a Wizard of Oz trick,” he says, referring to the classic movie’s pre-cyclone black and white, and postcyclone landing in Technicolor Oz. For the iris effect, the Ballet’s technical staff pulled off an engineering feat, says Benjamin Phillips, Boston Ballet’s production manager and technical director. “To make three pieces of scenery move at once, we built rigging and tracking systems on monstrous steel cages,” he says. But during the performance they’re manipulated by just one stagehand pulling a rope. “I’ve never seen it before,” Phillips says. “It was very much an original idea.”
For the ballet’s iconic, towering tree, Nissinen instructed Perdziola to go big. “I said to the designer that what I want is a Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree illusion,” Nissinen recalls. The result is a tree that “grows” to more than 42 feet tall and glimmers in fiber-optic light. The majority of the scenery was constructed over six months at Mystic Scenic Studios in Norwood, while many of the props were built at the Ballet’s own 40,000-square-foot building in Newburyport. “Normally we build shows that can travel,” he explains. “This was custom made for the Boston Opera House. It’s the biggest show we’ve built in 12 years.” It may also be the most intoxicating.
And fun. In the living room battle scene, the Mouse King leads the charge with a martini pick, an olive, and a lime wedge, while his mouse infantry holds the front with an artillery of cherries and lime slices—a wink at the adults in the audience. Largely though, he says, his own interpretation of the ballet stems from Clara’s impressions of her parents’ Christmas party just as she drifts off to sleep. “It’s sort of her memories from that night, and she just takes a wild ride,” he explains. As it will be for the young girls playing Clara.
After a week of nail-biting suspense, four girls—Eliza French, Calissa Grady, Emily Hoff, and Chelsea Perry—learn they will be working on the role of Clara. For eight weeks the girls maintain an intense rehearsal schedule of up to 12 hours each week (balanced with school, of course), and as opening night approaches they might rehearse as many as 26 hours in one week. Being chosen for Clara is often the nod that leads the young ballerinas to become principal dancers. Several dancers who have once performed the role with Boston Ballet have gone on to become principal dancers in other ballet companies such as The Royal Ballet in London.
For 14-year-old Chelsea Perry of Walpole, this will be her second time as Clara. It’s a part her mother, Lisa, says Perry has coveted since age four, when she saw Boston Ballet’s own Nutcracker for the first time. “Before the first act was over she jumped in my lap and said, ‘I want to be Clara,’” Lisa recalls. She adds that it feels surreal to see her daughter performing, but Perry discusses the experience like a ballet veteran. She lives, she says, for the first step on stage. “It’s the moment that you let go and just become the part, and you live in her world instead of living in your own,” she says. And it is through Clara’s dream—and Nissinen’s artistic vision—that we are all transported into the Ballet’s magical realm and the making of ballet history.
The Nutcracker runs November 23 through December 30. For tickets, call 617- 695-6955.
photography by eric levin