It’s a story we all know well. A young girl’s nutcracker (an interesting Christmas present for a pre-teen, but that’s a whole other conversation) comes to life, defeats an army of mice and then leads her to a magical world of dancing snowflakes, a sugar plum princess and more.
What isn’t as widely known is that the first country to produce this beloved Christmas tale as a full-length ballet was Russia. Alexandre Dumas Père’s adaptation of the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. The director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, commissioned the work in 1891, and it premiered a week before Christmas in 1892.
On Nov. 15, Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” is coming to Cheyenne Civic Center to honor a timeless tradition with roots that trace back to that original 1892 performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Moscow Ballet’s take on “The Nutcracker” isn’t much different from the version most Westerners know, but the Russian version of Clara goes by Masha, and there is one other significant difference: This production uses not only high-caliber ballet dancers, but towering puppets to tell a story that takes audiences to a magical location referred to as the Land of Peace and Harmony, rather than the Land of Sweets.
Founder and Executive Producer of Moscow Ballet Akiva Talmi said perhaps the most notable element unique to the Russian production is the two-person Dove of Peace, which is a character portrayed via a pas de deux that kicks off the show’s second act and features a 20-foot-wide set of wings created by puppet-builders in South Africa.
This dove isn’t just for show, however. It’s a way of honoring the legacy of a Russian dance performed several decades ago that served as a pivotal moment in Russian ballet history.
“1958 was the first visit of the Russian National Ballet Company to New York,” Talmi said. “In the middle of that evening, in the middle of the Cold War, there was a piece that was an acrobatic ballet with two people … we developed the Dove of Peace acrobatic ballet based on the premiere in 1958 of that first-ever visit. ... Before, there was no Russian dance at all in America.”
“Great Russian Nutcracker” also features a Christmas tree that grows to 50 feet, as well as another impressive set piece that corresponds with every nation in the Land of Peace and Harmony: 12-foot-tall animal puppets. The Arabian Variation features an elephant, the Spanish Variation features a bull, the Chinese Variation features a dragon, the Russian Variation features a bear and the French Variation features a unicorn.
Talmi said there are three companies of 36 Russian dancers within Moscow Ballet’s North American Tour that are assigned to different regions of the country. In total, the three groups will visit 144 cities on this 2019 Gift of Christmas Tour.
Another element Talmi noted as one of his favorite aspects of the production is the Moscow Ballet’s Dance with Us program, which allows local ballet students in every city the show is staged in the opportunity to audition for one of five roles: party children, mice, snowflakes, snow maidens and dancers in the Spanish, Russian, Chinese and French variations.
Seven Russian audition directors tour the U.S. and Canada during the fall in search of ballet students to fill these roles, and in Cheyenne, several ballet dancers between the ages of 6 and 18 auditioned at Moscow Ballet host studio Act Two Studios.
Yuriy Kuzo, a Moscow Ballet dancer, was one of those audition directors this year.
He said he was looking for more than just skilled dancers while searching for the right children earlier this fall.
“I’m looking for kids who really want to try something in their life. … They can’t just dance, they have to have soul,” he said. “I call this hungry eyes. They are hungry for knowledge. They want to study dance and improve and become better, and that makes me really happy.”
Working with the kids is inspiring, he added, because he watches them mature and gain a sense of professionalism throughout the process. Kuzo said he also likes teaching and auditioning the kids because the students learn not only a new ballet style – most American ballet students are taught in the style of acclaimed contemporary choreographer George Balanchine, not traditional Russian style – but he gets to teach them how to act and tell a story through their movement.
Talmi agrees, adding that meeting and working with new children every year is what keeps the “Great Russian Nutcracker” fresh for both him and the dancers.
“They remain internet pen pals with their Russian teachers for years,” Talmi said of the young dancers. “Dancers who were children 12 years ago now have children dancing with us.”