Tradition, innovation keep 'Nutcracker' fresh

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-22 06:15:42-05

How does a classic remain a classic? It takes just the right mix of tradition and innovation, discipline and spectacle.

And magic. Magic always helps.

It would be easy for Cincinnati Ballet’s annual performance of “Frisch's Presents The Nutcracker” to become a stodgy affair. After all, the company is performing the piece for the 42nd straight season. And it’s based on a Russian ballet that’s more than 120 years old – one that Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO, said has a reputation for being “aristocratic and a bit inaccessible.”

Yet Cincinnati audiences flock to the production, which runs through Dec. 27, year after year. They’re dazzled by the blend of traditional – the finery, captivating Tchaikovsky music performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and graceful dancing – and the modern – the ever-evolving costumes and sets, not to mention the addition last year of hip-hop dancers.

Many elements of today’s version were introduced in 2011 with the premiere of Morgan’s reimagined “Nutcracker,” and each year the company looks for ways to keep it fresh.

New this season is a performance that is tailored for people with sensory sensitivities that have made visiting the theater overwhelming. Jen Smith and her staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center worked with staff of Cincinnati Ballet and the Aronoff Center to enable more people to enjoy this local tradition.

For the dancers, “The Nutcracker” holds a special place. Principal dancer Sarah Hairston said, “Most of us have been dancing it since we were little; it was our first ballet, most likely, to either see or perform in. So it has a special place in our hearts.”

Here are few more things that keep audiences curious, engrossed and, perhaps most important, coming back.

Who doesn’t love magic? Life is more fun with a little mystery, a little “How did he do that?!” But it’s not something people expect to see at a ballet. This production, however, includes surprising moments: Character Herr Drosselmeyer’s wineglass is suspended in the air after he walks away, for example, and a girl’s costume transforms from one dress to another. “You should hear how excited the audience gets when the dress changes,” Morgan said.

‘Eek, a mouse!’?: A key scene involves a battle between a group of mice and a troop of toy soldiers. So, how do audiences – especially kids – react to people-sized rodents that, let’s face it, could get a little creepy? Dancer Josiah Cook said the opposite is true: Kids get into the fairytale aspect of the show and seem mesmerized by the mice. It helps that the costume designers made them funny, over-the-top and non-threatening, with big bellies and funny hats. And the brigade of mice is given a decidedly cool vibe with four dancers from Elementz bringing them alive with wacky, isolated movements.

A place for everyone: Many factors make the sensory-friendly performance work. Preparation is key, said Smith, who heads Children’s LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disabilities) program. The group prepped staff and volunteers, created visual support materials for families that could be customized and printed, planned quiet rooms for audience members who might get overwhelmed and worked with the Aronoff on tweaks such as keeping the house lights half-lit.

Well, that’s awkward: Hairston said there have been too many funny and embarrassing moments to count, but one stands out. During a performance for students one year, a piece of elastic stuck to another dancer’s costume as she went up for a lift. The two played a discreet tug-of-war trying to disentangle, but ultimately her tutu would no longer cover her fanny and she was left dancing – in front of an audience of kids – with very little covering her.

Now that’s a big noggin: One of the first things that comes to mind when watching “The Nutcracker” is, “How does that guy dance with that giant head?” Cook, who inhabits the Nutcracker character with its visually arresting but, frankly, unwieldy-looking noggin, said it’s easier than one might imagine. Designed by Madcap Puppets, the piece is impressively big but more lightweight than it looks. Cook said dancing in it was a challenge at first but became easier after a few rehearsals.

From dancing mice to the Sugar Plum Fairy, “The Nutcracker” is filled with fanciful characters. But what makes it work is its human connection, said Morgan.

“The glorious music is irresistible to move to and dance to," she said. "Dance, at its essence, is so human – human bodies moving.”

"Frisch's Presents the Nutcracker"
Through Dec. 27. Sensory-friendly performance Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Downtown