Audree Estey

Mary Pat Robertson

Cindy Mahoney

Graham Lustig

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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


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Audree Estey

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

with Estey.

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


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Mary Pat Robertson

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


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Cindy Mahoney

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."

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Graham Lustig

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,"

says Lustig.

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

The Nutcracker, American Repertory Ballet, McCarter

Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $21 to $33. Wednesday,

December 29, through Sunday, January 2.

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