The holidays are just around the corner, and for the ballet world so is Nutcracker! American Repertory Ballet, New Jersey’s pre-eminent ballet company based in Princeton, will celebrate its 50th Annual Nutcracker Season this year. It is one of the longest consecutively running Nutcracker productions in the United States, and is the longest-running in New Jersey.
Company founder and then Artistic Director Audree Estey teamed up with McCarter Theater’s William Lockwood, who still works at McCarter as Director of Special Programming, to bring the company’s Nutcracker to the stage every holiday season, beginning in 1964. This year American Repertory Ballet’s Nutcracker will come to McCarter Theater Thanksgiving weekend: Wednesday, November 27, at 7 p.m.; Friday, November 29, at 1 and 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, November 30, at 1 and 4:30 p.m. The production will also take the stage at the State Theater in New Brunswick (with a live orchestra) and at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, as it has for more than 20 years, and at Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway and Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan.
American Repertory Ballet and its Nutcracker have gone through some changes since its first annual Nutcracker performance in 1964: The company was called Princeton Regional Ballet until 1978 and then Princeton Ballet Company until 1990. It has presented a few different versions of Nutcracker, choreographed by its artistic directors Audree Estey, Dermot Burke, Septime Webre, Graham Lustig, and, since 2010, Douglas Martin. Not to mention, the cast of more than 100 performers, featuring professional company dancers and select students from its affiliated Princeton Ballet School, changes year to year!
However, ARB’s Nutcracker remains an annual treat for audiences across the state, rekindles memories, and revives some of Estey’s choreography. The current production is choreographed primarily by Artistic Director Douglas Martin, but the Act I Party and Battle Scenes are from Estey’s version, bringing the Nutcracker performed today close to its roots.
“At ARB there is a huge tradition enjoyed by generations of Nutcracker alumni,” Martin remarks. “To this day, I’ve never come across another Nutcracker that can boast original cast members who are still involved with the production 50 years after its creation, as well as alumni cast members who are still involved in the organization. For example, our wonderful Sherry Alban started her Nutcracker experience as the littlest child in the party scene in the original cast. Now, she restages the Party and Battle Scenes for ARB with the loving care of a life-long Nutcracker family member.”
Another such “Nutcracker family member” is Anne Woodside Gribbins, a former Princeton Ballet Company dancer who is now on the faculty at Princeton Ballet School and is the director of marketing at McCarter.
“I started performing in Nutcracker at age 4 as a mouse,” she recalls. “I was so shy, I spent most of the first rehearsals sitting on Mrs. Estey’s lap! Her first act is so perfectly focused on the children and filled with warmth and love. I feel fortunate to have been part of this production from the perspective of a student, a professional company member, and now as a teacher. Seeing generations of kids touched by the Nutcracker ‘magic’…It’s hard to explain to people outside the process, but everyone who has been involved, from backstage to onstage and everything in between, keeps it in their hearts forever.”
On Saturday, November 30, directly following the 4:30 p.m. performance at McCarter, ARB’s “Celebrate the Legacy” reception at the Nassau Club will present a special opportunity for Nutcracker alumni to reconnect and to mingle with ARB’s current performers, fans, and supporters. The event will feature hors d’oeuvres prepared by Nassau Club Chef Brian Dougherty, photos from Nutcrackers past, a 50/50 raffle, and more. Please visit www.arballet.org/ARB/Nutcracker for more information about ARB’s 50th Annual Nutcracker Season performances and events, and more ways to partake in the magic and tradition of this special production.