Clara and her Nutcracker Prince will be all over Wichita this holiday season. Dance fans have three versions of the classic holiday ballet to choose from this year, and each is set in a different country.
Friends University and Ballet Wichita are in the midst of preparing their annual presentations of the dance, both of which feature young student dancers mixing with out-of-town professionals.
And this year, the Orpheum Theatre is bringing back the Moscow Ballet company, which was last in Wichita in 2011. That company will present “Great Russian Nutcracker” on Dec. 1.
Although each dance is set in a different part of the world, all three offer a delicate story of love and compassion plus seasoned ballet dancers and the detailed scenery and costumes.
“It has something in it for everybody,” said Stan Rogers, director of the ballet department at Friends. Rogers has directed “The Nutcracker” for 20 years. “It’s a consistent story that every age group will love and understand.”
“The Nutcracker” combines an interpretation of the 19th-century tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann with compositions by Tchaikovsky. Clara/Masha frolics in a land of enchantment where good wins over evil and a broken doll becomes a prince.
Because the story was written in Germany and Jill Landrith, the artistic director of Ballet Wichita, performed as a ballerina in Germany, the company sets its holiday story in a quaint German town in 1865. The company uses the typical fraus and herrs, and dresses several performers in dirndls and knickers. The hand-painted wooden toys are those one would find in a European home of the period, and the costumes could outfit any well-to-do German townsperson.
In Ballet Wichita’s production, every character has a name and is given a personality by Landrith.
“As dancers, we portray people,” Landrith said. “We do more than just movement.”
Ballet Wichita is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Along with new toy soldier costumes, the company has several new gowns and backdrops. More than 100 performers ages 8 to 60-something will play soldiers, dew drops and snowflakes.
Former Houston Ballet performer Dorio Perez will play Herr Drosselmeyer. He’ll wear knickers, a cape and a white wig. Perez, a professional dancer who has performed in “The Nutcracker” with the English National Ballet and the Houston Ballet, said he is excited to once again perform the role of Clara’s magical godfather. Perez has always performed the ballet in a German setting, he said.
“It’s almost like second nature,” Perez said.
The music for this production will be performed by the Ballet Wichita Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jay Decker.
“The Nutcracker” was originally produced in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. It was not performed outside Russia until the 1930s.
Dancers in the Moscow Ballet come from cities throughout the former Soviet Union. They’ve been trained since childhood in classical ballet and have performed worldwide with other notable Russian companies. These dancers perform “Great Russian Nutcracker” in front of nine hand-painted backdrops that feature three-dimensional elements.
The opening scene features party-goers, in costumes that reflect late-1800s Russian garments, busying themselves in front of an onion-domed skyline. All of the costumes were designed by world-class costumer Arthur Oliver and hand-sewn in St. Petersburg.
“I believe that ballet is something of a Russian specialty,” Oliver said about why the costumes come from Russia. “They are all done with a Russian technique.”
Each minutely detailed costume and prop is based on hours of research, he said. Oliver spent days at the Hermitage, examining clothes worn by tsars and tsarinas.
Oliver also designed the larger-than-life Matryoshka (Russian nesting dolls) and the 10-foot dove’s wings that escort Masha (Clara) and her Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Peace and Harmony (land of sweets in other shows). Two dancers wearing the wings intertwine and become one large bird.
“This is the story of a community in St. Petersburg that is getting together for joy and love and is life giving,” said Akiva Talmi, the show’s producer of 21 years and a graduate of the Juilliard School.
This year, the overture will feature a Russian street scene, and Herr Drosselmeyer will dance with an elaborate trick wagon.
Along with the 40 classically trained Russian dancers, Father Christmas and a snow maiden, the Moscow Ballet’s performance features a world of unity where dancers represent Chinese, French and Russian cultures.
“The party scene is extremely Russian. It will certainly look like a ballroom in St. Petersburg,” Talmi said. “We ‘Russified’ it.”
The Friends University/Wichita Ballet Theatre production of “The Nutcracker” features more than 80 community dancers as young as age 8, several principal dancers from the New York City Ballet and 25 dance majors from the university.
The university students and professional ballet dancers perform all the title roles in the production, which is set in late-1800s New England. The opening party scene reflects a large, affluent New England home with period gowns of magenta, navy and jade green. The gowns are topped off with white gloves, while the men wear tuxes.
“The costumes are elegant,” said Sharon Rogers, a dance professor at Friends. “They have a winter palette.”
The 500-seat theater makes for an intimate setting.
“The stage is so close, the audience feels like they are a part of the show,” Sharon Rogers said.
Rogers also serves as the ballet mistress and is the head of Wichita Ballet Theatre. She helps to oversee the children, university students, adult dancers and professional dancers.
The young dancers and students are inspired to excel by working next to the professionals, said Stan Rogers, director of “The Nutcracker” at Friends.
“This show is kind of our gift to Wichita,” Stan Rogers said. “It’s a good way to educate young people into ballet. It’s easily understandable and beautiful.”