In a studio at Princeton Ballet School, a debate about nuts is taking place. At just what point in Tchaikovsky’s music for the party scene in Act I of “The Nutcracker” are the nuts cracked by the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer and doled out into the children’s eager, outstretched hands?
Douglas Martin, artistic director of American Repertory Ballet, who is rehearsing the role of Drosselmeyer for the company’s upcoming performances, remembers it one way. Sherry Alban, a former dancer, company member, and teacher who is helping to stage the scene, has a slightly different recollection. After some brief discussion, the nut question is resolved and the 16 dancers in the studio are back in character as guests at the ballet’s opening, a Victorian-era Christmas party.
While “The Nutcracker” has been performed by ARB since the days the company was known as the Princeton Regional Ballet, this year is different. Audiences who come to McCarter Theater over Thanksgiving weekend, to Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton on Saturday, December 11, or the State Theater in New Brunswick on Saturday and Sunday, December 18 and 19, will see a production that is at once old and new. Martin has provided new dances for the entire second act as well as the Act I snow scene. But for the remainder of Act I, he has returned to the original choreography by Audree Estey, who, with her husband, Bud Estey, founded the Princeton Ballet in 1968. Estey, a former dancer, first staged “The Nutcracker” for students at her Princeton Ballet School in 1963; she founded the school in 1954. She and her husband, an actor, started the Princeton Regional Ballet, later the Princeton Ballet, 14 years later. The troupe changed its name to American Repertory Ballet in 1991.
After Estey’s retirement in 1978, artistic directors Dermot Burke, who now heads the Dayton Ballet in Ohio; Septime Webre, now artistic director of the Washington Ballet; Graham Lustig, who recently formed the New-Brunswick-based lustigdancetheatre (“Meet Graham Lustig, the Next Generation,” U.S. 1, October 20); and now Martin have continued the annual staging of “The Nutcracker” — in various guises.
“When I was a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet, I was lucky to be a part of Mr. (Robert) Joffrey’s production of ‘The Nutcracker,’ which was his last project,” says Martin. “He really got it right. What is neat is that Princeton Ballet got it right, too, especially in the party and battle scenes. It has a long tradition here and was very popular, so why wouldn’t you do it? We’re restaging these scenes as a kind of homage to Audree and Bud Estey.”
Like Martin, Burke and Webre mixed elements of their own choreography with Estey’s original. When Lustig arrived in 2000, he created an entirely new version of the ballet. That production went with him when he departed the company this past summer (it will be performed this season by the Oakland Ballet in California). So Martin and staff had to return to the drawing board. Once it was decided to produce a “Nutcracker” blending Estey’s original with new choreography of his own, Martin opted to forgo a fall season of repertory performances in favor of an intense rehearsal period.
“This is new for everybody, even though we’re bringing back familiar parts of the ballet,” he says. “We have 78 children in each cast. We are all learning new things, and it’s a lot of work.”
While this “Nutcracker” has sections that will be new to audiences, Martin was careful not to go too far. “There are certain things you don’t mess with. This ballet is a great American tradition,” he says. “It’s not really about ballet. People go because it is their personal tradition at Christmas. There are so many people who come who are looking for that tradition. That’s what the ‘Nutcracker’ audience is about.”
Both Burke at the Dayton Ballet and Webre at the Washington Ballet have incorporated Estey’s Act I party and battle scenes into their productions of “The Nutcracker.” In recent seasons, Webre has hired Princeton Ballet School’s Sherry Alban to teach members of his company the intricacies of the party scene. If anyone knows the ins and outs of the original Estey “Nutcracker,” it is Alban.
“I’ve been involved in this since the first performances in 1963, when I was a kid in the school,” says Alban, who currently teaches ballet at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts as well as at Princeton Ballet School. “I think I have a special affinity for this, because I grew up in it. When I was in the company and performing in the ballet, I started rehearsing the kids. One year I was in it with my two daughters. Doing this version again here is like being back home again. It’s a wonderful feeling. Being involved in this kind of production is an important time in a dancer’s life.”
While he wasn’t the first choreographer to stage the ballet in the United States, George Balanchine is credited with turning “The Nutcracker” into what is unquestionably the best-attended ballet in existence. It was first presented on December 18, 1892, at the famed Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the ballet then known as “Casse-Noisette” had choreography by Lev Ivanov and music by Tchaikovsky.
Balanchine had danced several roles in the ballet as a student at the Imperial Ballet School, and he incorporated many of the special effects he remembered when he mounted a production for his New York City Ballet in 1954. When the company moved from New York’s City Center to the New York State Theater (now called the Koch Theater) in 1964, the stage was specially constructed to house the magically growing Christmas tree that Balanchine always considered the real star of the show.
Soon, regional ballet companies across the country were presenting different versions of “The Nutcracker.” Estey’s was among the early efforts, and it immediately gained a following. Thousands of children got their first experience performing on a professional stage in this “Nutcracker.” In fact, ARB is holding its Sixth Annual Nutcracker Alumni Gathering on Saturday, November 27, immediately following the 4:30 p.m. performance at McCarter Theater.
“I have people in the company now who were little kids onstage in this production,” says Martin. “Stephen Campanella is one of them. I have a woman who is playing the role of ‘big family mother’ who was a child in the cast when I danced in the ballet 17 years ago. Christine Chen (ARB managing director) played a little boy when she was at the school. There are all of these wonderful connections.”
Martin is using older, ex-dancers in the production in addition to current, youthful members of the ballet company. “I’m always looking for an array of body types and personalities, because I think it gives a realness to the ballet,” he says. “That’s how Joffrey did it, and it worked.”
This is the 48th year for “The Nutcracker” in Princeton. For Martin and many with fond memories of the original Estey production, restoring elements of her efforts brings things full circle. “I think it’s what belongs here,” says Martin. “I just like it.”
The Nutcracker, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, November 26, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, November 27, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, November 28, 1 p.m. American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School present Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic. Alumni gather in the West lobby on Saturday, November 27, at 6:30 p.m. $38 to $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Also, The Nutcracker Children’s Tea Party, Saturday, November 27, 11 a.m. and Sunday, November 28, 11 a.m. Holiday treats with costumed dancers. $45; children, $30. Performance tickets sold separately.
Additional Nutcracker performances: Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton. Saturday, December 11, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. $24 to $39. 609-984-8400 or www.arballet.org. And State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday, December 18, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, December 19, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. $32 to $57. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.