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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 22,
1999. All rights reserved.
Passing the Torch of `The Nutcracker’
Like those little toy soldiers of "The
that have charmed audiences for years, they are changing the guard
at American Repertory Ballet’s annual family ballet.
Now enjoying its 36th annual "Nutcracker" season, American
Repertory Ballet is preparing to retire its production that includes
choreography created by company founder Audree Estey, and pass the
torch to British-born artistic director Graham Lustig, who joined
the company in June. Remarkably this 36th ARB season, during which
the transition is beginning to take form, is Lustig’s very first
Audree Estey founded Princeton Ballet School in 1954; the
company that grew out of the school in 1963 — when
performances were initiated — was originally named the Princeton
Regional Ballet Company, and became the professional Princeton Ballet.
In 1991, as the company climbed to prominence as one of the nation’s
notable regional ballets, it renamed itself American Repertory Ballet.
Company founder and advisor Estey, who celebrates her 90th birthday
on January 9, will attend the final performance of the season, on
Sunday, January 2, at 4:30 p.m. at McCarter Theater.
"We’ve invited generations of `Nutcracker’ graduates for a
says Lustig. "We’ll have lawyers, doctors, mothers, teachers,
and bankers here," he says. The former cast members will be
to a grand reunion curtain call and a champagne birthday reception
Is it the sight or sounds of the annual "Nutcracker" ballet
that charm us most? Tchaikovsky gives us the sparkle of the triangle
that brightens up the opening overture, the icy chill of the flute
in snow, and the magic sound of the celeste that accompanies the Sugar
Plum Fairy. Yet one of the most engaging features of ARB’s
is that this could well be described as a production for children
by children. One-hundred-fifty young dancers of the Princeton Ballet
School join the professional company of 23 to create the magic. And
as Lustig points out, "Certainly, Mrs. Estey wanted it that
Mary Pat Robertson who started teaching for Princeton Ballet School
in 1980, has served as administrative director since 1988. Although
Estey had by that time retired to Sarasota, Florida, Robertson has
come to know Estey through the school. And significantly, Estey
a school before founding the company.
"As a school we are still committed to the philosophy Mrs. Estey
had in founding it, which is that dance is for everyone," says
Robertson. "Our goal is to give student dancers the tools of mind
and body that they would need to become professionals or to become
lifelong friends of the arts."
"It’s wonderful to work with an organization founded by someone
of such vision and generosity," says Robertson. "And it’s
a great responsibility for us all to carry forward her vision. We’re
very pleased to be able to publicly honor her on her 90th
Robertson says she especially enjoys the intergenerational aspect
of Estey’s enduring "Nutcracker" choreography. "Her
for children asks for a high level of personal responsibility from
each child in terms of being able to relate to the adults in the
Cindy Mahoney, the mother of ARB company dancer Sean Mahoney, marshals
the 150 "Nutcracker" children, a total two entire child casts
with triple and quadruple casting for some scenes, that appear in
five cities between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Princeton Ballet
School is now the nation’s second largest school affiliated with a
professional dance company. The only school that is larger is the
school of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
"This comes back to Audree’s philosophy," Robertson explains,
"because we do not have auditions that are exclusionary based
on body type or capability. We are truly following through on her
goal of training everyone who would like to learn to dance."
Artistic director Lustig says he was comfortable
the well-known production this year, and enjoyed selecting roles to
suit the talents of the dancers in the company today. He sees "The
Nutcracker" as an annual rite that can serve the company
as well as economically.
"With a season of some 20 performances, it is an ideal opportunity
to offer all sorts of chances to company members," he says.
whole company has been turned around to try different things, and
it serves the purpose of bringing on people. With enough time to coach
and give artistic support to new dancers, we’ve introduced more casts
as the season progresses." He notes the season has given new
Rupert Edwards his first solo work, and the season’s four different
Sugar Plum Fairies have included Simone Cardoso and Jennifer Provins,
both dancing the role for the first time.
As a Principal Affiliate of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center
(NJPAC) in Newark, ARB performed "The Nutcracker" in its
Hall on a Wednesday night in December, with New Jersey Symphony
and the Newark Boys Choir accompanying the Snowflake Waltz. Lustig
is thrilled with the result, and says the top-notch surroundings
his company to an elevated level. He looks forward to the 2000 season
when the company will return there for three performances.
Dance critic Robert Johnson of the Newark Star-Ledger concurred with
Lustig’s positive appraisal of this year’s debut. He describes the
performance as "an evening of choreographic splendor,"
with Mary Barton and Douglas Martin’s "pure and radiant"
of the Grand Pas de Deux. Johnson credited Lustig’s production for
its "first-class musical treatment" and alterations to the
production that "reveal theatrical savvy and good taste."
Lustig’s new touch to the ARB "Nutcracker" includes changes
to the party scene, with new dances for children and parents, an
dancing role for Clara, and the casting of top company dancers in
the roles of both Herr Drosselmeyer and his handsome nephew. This
in turn means two newly important male roles, and a stronger rapport
between Clara and her godfather. Clara has also become an important
part of the finale. "The ending of the piece is all about Clara,
not the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s her dream and she’s the star,"
These small changes are just a warm up for Lustig’s entirely new
coming in 2000, already in progress in collaboration with designer
Zack Brown. "I think it’s going to be a re-thinking of the piece
in a traditional package," he says. "It will have new
throughout, but I won’t try to re-invent the wheel. We want to give
wonderful entertainment, and lend opportunities for all levels of
young dancers. Also I want to do something that reflects where we
are in terms of our theater craft."
Among Lustig’s priorities is restoring cuts previously made to the
music. "Tchaikovsky’s glorious score lends itself to an easy flow
of interpretive ideas," says Lustig.
"You know Tchaikovsky and Petipa were thinking about the turn
of the century when they were working on the ballet in 1891,"
says Lustig, who will set his "Nutcracker" shortly after the
turn of the 20th century, when women’s dress styles allowed for a
more fluid dance style. "After all," says Lustig, "that’s
when women were moving toward the vote."
"The art of the narrative is in the re-telling. We want to make
it appropriate for the vocabulary of dance and audiences today. That’s
what makes a classic."
— Nicole Plett
Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $21 to $33. Wednesday,
December 29, through Sunday, January 2.
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