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A peek into ‘The Nutcracker’

Tchaikovsky’s treasured ballet charms Boston

Published: Thursday, December 10, 2009

Updated: Thursday, December 10, 2009 09:12

Nutcracker 1

Courtesy Gene Schiavone

Nutcracker 2

Courtesy Rosalie O’Connor

From the first strains of its overture to its grand finale, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" is one of the best−known ballets ever written. Going to see the dance is a beloved holiday tradition, and the Boston Ballet's spectacular production brings this Christmas tale to the people of Boston each year, complete with elaborate sets and beautiful costumed dancers. Magical story becomes majestic spectacle

"The Nutcracker" follows the magical journey of Clara Silberhaus, who is given a nutcracker by her mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, on Christmas Eve in 1835 at a party held by her parents. After all the guests leave, Clara returns to the darkened reception room where she finds her nutcracker under the Christmas tree and quickly falls asleep.

When Clara wakes up, mice scamper around her, Drosselmeier reappears and the entire room grows before her eyes. The walls, the Christmas tree and the furniture are suddenly enormous, and the Nutcracker himself also grows to life−size. He then duels and kills the Mouse King and takes Clara through the enchanted Land of Snow to the magical Kingdom of Sweets. There, a fantastical array of dances is performed to Clara's delight.

This magical story is brought to life by the dancers of the Boston Ballet, and their captivating performances are complemented by beautiful sets. Before the ballet begins, a painted wintry scene is hung in front of the stage. With its dark night sky, snow−covered pines and rendering of a quaint town in the distance, it serves as a fitting introduction to the ballet's series of sets.

In the Enchanted Forest scene (the last in Act I), for example, the set shows a wintry night with a deep blue sky, towering, snow−covered pine trees and twinkling stars. The characters on stage — the Snow Queen and King — are dressed in bright white costumes that mirror their surroundings. These well−designed scenes combined with Tchaikovsky's famed score — performed live by the Boston Ballet Orchestra — to make the production truly spectacular. A dancer's dream

Performing "The Nutcracker" represents the culmination of a significant amount of preparatory work for Boston Ballet's dancers, but it is something that they almost universally enjoy — both for its music and for the career opportunities it provides.

"I was eight when I first did Nutcracker … and [I've done it] almost every year since," Alison Basford, a member of the Boston Ballet's Corps de Ballet, said. "You're exposed to this music so many times year after year after year, and the music is still just beautiful. I think that's part of what makes it so wonderful."

Basford also said that because the production is so large, it gives each dancer the opportunity to prepare and perform multiple roles. "I have eight roles this year," she said. "That's pretty typical for most people to have so many parts because we do a lot of shows."

Among her roles this year are Grandmother, Spanish Dancer and Lead Flower.

"We don't do the same part every night. It switches around, which keeps it interesting. Even though we do so many, it's not repetitive," Basford said. "If you did the same part year after year, you can see how you can improve from the year before because you're working on the same part…You grow because you're older and your technique is better. It's why Nutcracker is a great time for everyone." Preparing for the production

Rehearsals for "The Nutcracker" began over a month before the curtain went up on the first performance, according to Basford, and the company spent several full weeks preparing for the 34 shows. Then, the week before their first performance, rehearsals were held where the show is performed: The Boston Opera House. Since then, the dancers have been consistently busy.

"As of now, I'm cast in every single show, so I think I'll be doing all 34, as will, I believe, most of the corps," Basford said. "Sometimes we'll have an act off … but not usually a whole show." Basford said that since the show runs for a long period of time, rehearsals continue through the performances.

Before each show, Basford arrives at the theatre approximately an hour and a half before the curtain goes up. She puts on her costume, attends to her hair and makeup and warms up for her roles in the ballet. Though there's always a crowd backstage, Basford said that most of a dancer's preparation is done alone.

The stage area becomes hectic once the curtain goes up, with sets rapidly changing and large groups of dancers moving on and off stage. "It can get a get a little crazy at times, but … things usually run pretty smoothly," said Basford. "Everyone knows their place and they know their jobs, and we all want to accomplish the same goal."

Among the many people sharing the stage area are students from the Boston Ballet School, who take part in each performance. Basford said that she enjoyed having them on stage with her.

"It's fun," she said, "You really see their enjoyment, and some of the kids start in one part and then they grow into a different part, and you can see the improvement. You're watching these tiny little kids grow up on the stage." A full house for Boston Ballet's grand tradition

"The Nutcracker" has drawn a large crowd since its first performance, and this popularity is important to the dancers. "The house is usually very full for Nutcracker, so it feels nice to dance for a full audience, which doesn't always happen for most of the other programs we do," said Basford.

"The Nutcracker" requires significant preparatory work on behalf of the performers, but also demands significant corporate preparations because of its financial importance to Boston Ballet.

According to Mariel MacNaughton, communications manager for the Boston Ballet, the planning begins early for each year's set of performances. "Since it's something we do every year, it's a challenge that we always want to look at with a fresh perspective and see what we can do to engage our audiences."

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