Arts & Culture

December 4, 2011

Nutcracker magic

This year, three companies bring the most popular ballet in the U.S. to Wichita.

This year, three companies bring the most popular ballet in the U.S. to Wichita.

Wichita Ballet performs “The Nutcracker Ballet” at Century II. Friends University, along with Wichita Ballet Theatre, features this classic at Sebits Auditorium. And the Moscow Ballet, after three years, comes back to Wichita with the “Great Russian Nutcracker” at the Orpheum.

“The Nutcracker” combines an interpretation of the 19th-century tale by E.T.A. Hoffman with magnificent compositions by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Amid beautiful scenery, breathtaking pirouettes and exuberant music, a young girl known as Clara/Masha frolics in a land of enchantment where good defeats evil and a broken doll becomes a prince.

Ballet Wichita

Ballet Wichita celebrates its 35th year of bringing “The Nutcracker” to life in Wichita.

“It’s absolutely a thrill every year,” said Jill Landrith, the artistic director of Ballet Wichita. Landrith has either directed or acted in a production of “The Nutcracker” for more than 40 years. “It stays exciting. There are always new tweaks.”

Along with the Victorian costumes and talented company dancers, Ballet Wichita has hired several principal dancers for this event. And to continue with tradition, the performance will feature a full orchestra, with many musicians from the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

“The addition of live music makes it such a treat,” Landrith said. “It’s a full-bodied experience.”

Jacob House, who plays the Cavalier for Ballet Wichita’s Junction City touring cast, has played most of the male parts in the ballet, including the Snow King at Friends several years ago.

“This ballet is magnificent,” House said. “It’s the Cavalier’s job to lift the Sugar Plum Fairy and make her look beautiful. It’s all about her.”

Isaac Stappas of American Ballet Theatre plays the Prince Cavalier in the Wichita performance.

Moscow Ballet

“The Nutcracker” originally was produced in St. Petersburg in 1892. It was not performed outside of Russia until the 1930s.

Svetlana Todinova, a principal ballerina for the Moscow Ballet, saw her first performance of “The Nutcracker” in Moscow when she was 9. She fell in love with the music and was mesmerized by the ballet dancers. Todinova was sent off to ballet school, where each day she studied reading, science, math and ballet.

“It was a very good education,” Todinova said. “We were busy all day.”

Dancers from the Moscow Ballet come from cities dotting the former Soviet Union. All were trained since childhood in classical ballet and have performed worldwide with other notable Russian companies. These dancers perform “The Great Russian Nutcracker” in front of nine hand-painted backdrops that feature 3-dimensional elements.

One backdrop features an angel and rainbow scene. Another is modeled after Henri Rousseau’s work.

“It depicts the jungles where everyone lives in harmony,” said Akiva Talmi, the show’s producer of 19 years and a graduate of Juilliard.

Along with the 40 classically trained Russian dancers, larger-than-life puppets, Father Christmas and a snow maiden, the Moscow Ballet’s performance features the land of peace and harmony — in place of the land of sweets. The Moscow Ballet uses the land of peace and harmony to depict a world of unity. Dancers who represent Chinese, French and Russian cultures perform for and with Masha and her prince.

“It (the company’s land of peace and harmony) came out of a diplomatic endeavor,” Talmi said. “When communism fell down, freedom emerged.”

Todinova performs the role of the Dove of Peace, known in most renditions as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Friends University and Wichita Ballet Theatre

The Friends University/Wichita Ballet Theatre production of “The Nutcracker” features the land of sweets.

Friends’ senior Anna Kirwan plays the Snow Queen.

“I call down the snow from the heavens,” Kirwan said. “It sets the stage for Clara’s journey.”

“It’s a real festive event,” said Stan K. Rogers, the director of the ballet department at Friends. Rogers has directed the Nutcracker for 18 years.

All three productions begin at a Christmas party in a Victorian ballroom. Herr Drosselmeyer, the young girl’s uncle, introduces a set of mechanical, wind-up dolls.

Many of the more than 100 Nutcracker dancers from all three casts have danced in a production of this ballet every year for more than a decade.

That includes Gretchen Wiswell, a senior at Friends who plays one of the dolls. She started out performing the Nutcracker for Ballet Wichita when she was 9.

“Once you start, you’re in it for a long time,” Wiswell said.

All three casts have dozens of local youngsters performing with the seasoned dancers.

Ballet Wichita and Friends University bring in several professionals from across the U.S. to play key roles.

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