When E.T.A. Hoffmann began to close his story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” — the 1816 tale that became the seed for the ballet “The Nutcracker” — he wrote of thousands of beautifully costumed figures dancing.
Little did he dream that his writing would turn to music — never mind that it would be the music that would start a dance tradition around the world, including in Princeton, New Jersey.
With the 50th anniversary of its annual “The Nutcracker” at McCarter Theater starting next week, the American Repertory Ballet in a very real way pays homage to dreams, including those of an area choreographer, a dancer, and a community.
One dreamer was Audree Estey, the Canadian-born founder and director of Princeton Ballet Society that, after a few name variations, became the professional American Repertory Ballet (which maintains the Princeton Ballet School).
After a typical nomadic dance experience — studying in Winnipeg, performing with a Hollywood dance company, touring the vaudeville circuit, and dancing for Fox Films — Audree Phipps married Lawrenceville School English teacher Wendell “Bud” Estey and moved to the Princeton area in 1933.
Here she began providing classes at the Lawrenceville School and seemingly any place she could use, including the garage of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. She also continued her study, including in the early 1950s with prominent choreographer Antony Tudor at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. It was then that she began to dream of creating her Princeton company.
Estey also had begun to create school dance recitals that presented full-length ballets, including “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Then, on May 11, 1956, the Princeton Ballet Society presented “The Nutcracker,” featuring Estey’s choreography, accompaniment by piano and harp, the Madrigal Group of Miss Fine’s School, and, according to the program, “150 dancers from the age of 5 to 18, all girls but one, and 12 adults.”
The notes also add that “scores of parents and friends of the society have helped in preparation of the sets, the program, and on other backstage problems,” setting the stage for the future company and the regional ballet tradition.
Eight years later Estey mentioned that she would like to establish an annual Christmas presentation. Ballet Society member and fellow dreamer William Lockwood, McCarter Theater special programming director, embraced the idea and forged the partnership between the society and the theater (initiating what is now known as Dance-At-McCarter). Says Lockwood: “I was on the board of the Princeton Ballet Society, when Audree Estey asked me about producing a Nutcracker. What did I think? I said, ‘Let’s do it together.’ The joint production between McCarter and the Ballet Society was born, and we co-presented it until the time came that it made more sense for them to produce it on their own.”
That December, 1964, performance — presented by the newly formed Princeton Regional Ballet Company — was a rewarding greater Princeton community effort, writes Estey for the 25th anniversary program.
“That first Nutcracker was a tremendous experiment in talent and cooperative effort from some 100 people, and I gasp when I realize how many thousands of loyal and enthusiastic people have, over these 25 years, devoted themselves to producing Nutcrackers for the enjoyment of — how many more thousands of audience,” she says.
Estey also mentions “our young dancers” who went on to careers in dance and theater.
One such dancer, Annie Woodside Gribbins, says that it is amazing that Estey left a “little gem” of a legacy that has not only remained but grown.
Gribbins, who will be performing the non-dancing role of the mother of Clara, has also grown with the production. Her entry into art and her professional career illustrates what a serious art endeavor can mean to an individual and a community.
“I danced almost every role in ‘The Nutcracker,’” says the Princeton Ballet-trained former dance professional who first participated in the 1972 production. “I was a mouse when I was four. I spent the first four rehearsals sitting on Audree’s lap. I loved ballet and took class. I was an apprentice at age 16 and became a company member at 17.”
“(Audree) wanted to bring something into the community,” Gribbins says, adding that to her and others, the production has become “The family tradition of all family traditions.”
To make her point, Gribbins says, “It was family affair for us. My mother started out as a volunteer. She had a daughter in the production. Then she started doing other jobs and became a costume designer. She made all the first act costumes. She wasn’t someone who had been trained for it. She had a naturally ability. She had impeccable eyes and ideas. And she and Audree connected.” Later her mother — originally a stay at home one — became a designer and with her banker husband opened and Competitive Sports shoe store on Palmer Square in the 1980s and ’90s.
There’s more, she says, about family connections. “My mother-in-law was a costume wardrobe at McCarter and worked with my mother before I married her son. My husband was in the scene shop. My dad felt like the odd man out. He had to handle the holiday preparations. I think he would call it ‘that whole Nutcracker thing.’”
Gribbins’ involvement with this “thing” is also a window to seeing how joining a company of local artists can lead to enriching the community and finding a career. In her case it was dancing and then arts management. “I did a lot of summer (dance) programs. I did some dancing with Opera Festival of New Jersey and at the same time joined the faculty at the ballet school. I taught all sorts of children’s classes — the pink leotards all the way up. I was teaching 20 or 25 hours a week. Then I was offered an administration position where I was coordinating the summer program.”
Despite work with other companies — Team Work Dance and Northeast Regional Ballet Company — she says she decided in 1989 that she was done with dancing. “It’s something that I thought I would do forever. Then it became clear that at age 21 my mind was different. You’re taught how to stand, how to dress, and do what you’re told. Then I thought I don’t know if this really for me. I loved dancing so much, but I was not meant to do it until I was 35. When I left, everyone thought I was crazy,” she says.
“You go through a lot of emotional ups and downs in a season and not getting picked for a part,” she says. “But for some reason ‘The Nutcracker’ kind of kept me out of it. I just had a lot of feeling for ‘The Nutcracker.’ It’s part of my history.”
Gribbins says that her experience with the productions was a good lesson in understanding options and choices. “I realized that I didn’t have to do the same thing my whole life, and I knew if I wanted to anything with the arts I would need business.”
Her plan involved getting a business administration degree from Mercer County Community College and a history and economics degree from the College of New Jersey. Her return to McCarter Theater was to the ticket office, where she became ticket manager, then interim marketing director, and now director of marketing. About mixing her dance background with the business side, she says, “I feel that I can look at something the way an artist looks at things. I am familiar with the egos. I lived and grew up with it. “
She says that the production also allows younger artists an opportunity to perform and then find work. “There is a student who just became an apprentice at New York City Ballet. And she’s probably in the New York City production. There are plenty of dancers who go somewhere else,” she says.
Thinking about her return to the McCarter stage Gribbins says, “I started off as a mouse with all the stuffing in the belly. Then I was a party child. I was a Policy. I was a Candy Cane, a Tea Dancer, and an Arabian. I was in the corps of snow and flower dancers. And I was a regular Dew Drop Fairy and Snow Queen. The problem with the Snow Queen was there was a lot of partnering to think about that. The snow scene was so incredibly beautiful and one of the fun things to dance. With Dewdrop, I didn’t have to partner, and I felt very comfortable just relying on myself. “
The role of Clara’s mother is more than a walk-on cameo. “It’s a little scary because I know all the people who have done the role, and I feel a bit responsible. Judy Leviton did the role of Clara’s mother. She was a teacher whom I feel that you have to live up to. So I want to do it well. And I haven’t been on stage for 15 years or so, so there’s that part that is a little daunting. I feel I am old enough to look like Clara’s mother. It will work.” It also helps that Gribbins has a daughter of her own, just about Clara’s age.
Other returning members of the community are, she says, 1964 show performer “Sherry Alban, the first act rehearsal director, has great longevity and great love for it. Christine Chen, (ARB) executive director, was child in the production. There are other people. It’s always nice to see people who stayed with it.” Also returning is the artistry of Estey. “Nearly the whole first act is hers. Up to the soldiers and battle scene it’s Audree and Bud’s,” says Gribbins, alluding to how the Esteys worked as a team — one that ended after 68 years of marriage in 2002 when the 95-year-old English teacher and 92-year-old dancer died a month apart.
“The neat thing about ‘The Nutcracker’ is that it is a magic community of people. It will always stay with you, no matter. People have had lifelong friendship of ‘The Nutcracker,’” says the fairy tale mouse who has become an onstage mother and real life theater professional.
That type of magic and transformation, perhaps, are what Hoffmann was dreaming when he wrote the story’s final line, “The most wonderful things can be seen by those who will only have eyes for them.”
In central New Jersey and the American Repertory Ballet, the eyes have it.
American Repertory Ballet’s 50th Annual “The Nutcracker” performance locations:
Princeton: McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Wednesday, November 27, 7 p.m., Friday, November 29, 1 and 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, November 30 at 1 and 4:30 p.m. $20 – $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Celebrate the Legacy, Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, Princeton. Saturday, November 30, 7 p.m. Hors d’oeuvres, 50/50 raffle, auction, and displays of photos and mementos from the company’s past 50 years of “The Nutcracker.” $50. 732-249-1254 x25 or 609-258-2787.
Nutcracker Sweets, McCarter Theater. Friday, November 29, 3:15 p.m. Tea, coffee, and hot cocoa served in china teacups; story time; and free photos with costumed characters. $35. 609-258-2787 or 732-249-1254 x25.
Trenton: Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Saturday, December 7, 1 p.m. (with post-show discussion) and 4:30 p.m. $20 to $45. 877-987-6487 or www.nj.gov/state/memorial.
New Brunswick: With Live Orchestra — State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday, December 21, and Sunday, December 22, at 1 and 4:30 p.m. $32 to $67. 732-246-7469 or www.statetheatrenj.org/nutcracker.
For more details about “The Nutcracker” and related events — including the Saturday, November 23, presentation in Rahway and the Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, presentation in Manasquan — visit www.americanrepertoryballet.org/ARB/Nutcracker.