A Nutcracker to Call Your Own

Mother Mangrove (portrayed by Matthew Carter) watches over her manatee children in Ballet Vero Beach’s Nutcracker on the Indian River.
Photo by Will Brenner

When it comes to creative inspiration, there’s no place like home

by Casey C. Davenport

Ballet has its fair share of repertory that transports us to a land far, far away in a time many years before our own. A sparkling example is The Nutcracker, which debuted at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, and despite its European setting and Victorian sensibilities, has become a mainstay of the U.S. holiday season.

Yet The Nutcracker is so popular—and its narrative so loose—that studios and professional companies often present their own takes on the well-known tale. Some spice it up with a hip-hop or jazz dance focus, while others, like Ballet Vero Beach in Florida and Sitka Studio of Dance in Alaska, stock their versions with quirky characters and familiar settings inspired by their own communities.


Nutty about nature

This past holiday season, for the first time, Ballet Vero Beach presented Nutcracker on the Indian River. Created by company artistic director and CEO Adam Schnell, the production is set in 1919 (Vero Beach’s founding year) and follows Marie Stahlbaum of New York City on a trip to the Indian River Lagoon in Florida. Set to Tchaikovsky’s score, the production includes both original choreography by Schnell and traditional choreography (Petipa’s grand pas de deux).

“Some people think it’s sacrilegious to change the traditional version of the story, but I think both Hoffman and Tchaikovsky would appreciate a modern twist to their work.” —Melinda McAdams

While Act 1 takes place at the Stalhbaum’s New York City brownstone and Grand Central Station, Act 2 is seasoned with Florida flora and fauna, such as dancing land crabs (Spanish variation), sandhill cranes (Arabian), gopher tortoises (Chinese), river otters and bobcats (Russian), and sandpipers (reed flutes). Mother Mangrove and her Manatees fill in for the traditional Mother Ginger and Polichinelles, and instead of flowers, vines of bougainvillea, a colorful equatorial plant, waltz in a summer breeze.

“The trick is capturing the line between the human world and the natural world, all through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl,” says Schnell. Travis Halsey of the Chicago-based design house Halsey Onstage designed and made the ballet’s many aquatic-themed costumes; Bungalow Scenic Studios in Orlando provided the sets.

Ballet Vero Beach’s young dancers portray local wildlife such as dolphins, sea turtles, and pelicans in a scene with Katherine Eppink and Anders Southerland.
Photo by Will Brenner

Schnell supplements his company dancers with 50 young dancers (local ballet students as well as youth with no previous ballet training recruited from area social service programs and elementary schools). The mix of performers and the production’s local flavor allowed Schnell to satisfy “the two facets of our audience,” he says—patrons of classical ballet, plus those who have no connection to the traditional Nutcracker story (including some patrons who had never been to a ballet).

Setting the production in the local community also created new outreach opportunities. The ballet partnered with the Indian River Land Trust, a nonprofit land preservation organization, which filled the lobby of the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center (where the show was performed) with walk-through exhibits highlighting the fragility of the lagoon and its impact on both the local area’s environment and its way of life. The ballet’s young cast members explored one of the organization’s conservation properties during a field trip; poetry they penned about the experience was included in the lobby displays.

Ballet Vero Beach will be performing Nutcracker on the Indian River as part of the city’s centennial celebration next year. “I am inspired everyday by where I live,” Schnell says. “I believe the production encouraged people to see their surroundings in a different and more conscious way, and will inspire people to help protect it for future generations.”


All about Alaska

Melinda McAdams, Sitka Studio of Dance owner/director since 1996, adapted her Nutcracker with an Alaskan theme. The Nutcracker: An Alaskan Tale is produced by the studio and the Fireweed Dance Guild, a local nonprofit that mounts this annual holiday production and other dance events. (McAdams is the guild’s volunteer director.) The Alaskan Nutcracker is presented in rotation with two other Nutcracker adaptations: one replaces the traditional Land of Sweets with fun food items; the other’s Act 2 is a trip around the world.

“I think everyone likes the show,” McAdams says of the Alaskan Nutcracker. “It represents the people, not some faraway magical kingdom.”

Set in 1867, Act 1 pays tribute to Alaska’s history, with a popular historical figure, Princess Maksoutoff, greeting partygoers in a traditional Russian-styled house. (Maksoutoff was a Russian princess and the wife of Alaska’s last Russian governor.) A gold miner crashes the party to show off his gold nuggets. Guests are entertained by a dancer who springs from a Matryoshka nesting doll, two dancing bears, and the New Archangel Dancers, a local troupe of Russian folk dancers. In the battle scene, the Nutcracker has a dance-off with the Mosquito Queen.

An Alaskan eagle takes center stage in Sitka Studio of Dance’s Nutcracker.
Photo by Bobbi Jordan

In Act 2, dancers portray the Northern Lights and the star Polaris. Crabs prance in red pointe shoes and mittens (Spanish). Little herrings wriggle from underneath Father Herring’s net-draped boat. Klondike can-can dancers kick to Trepak while a gaggle of tourists make the most of Marzipan. Other familiar sights include a “slime line” of fishery workers tap dancing in Xtratuf rubber boots, a bloom of jellyfish (costumes aglow with LED lights), a waltz of forget-me-nots (the Alaskan state flower), and the Fireweed Fairy (named for a local flower). Local artists painted the backdrops and most of the one-of-a-kind costumes were built in-house.

“Some people think it’s sacrilegious to change the traditional version of the story, but I think both Hoffman and Tchaikovsky would appreciate a modern twist to their work,” says McAdams, referring to E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote the original source material, as well as the ballet’s original composer.

The Nutcracker: An Alaskan Tale uses music from various artists who have tackled Tchaikovsky’s score: the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, Duke Ellington, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Modern Mandolin Quartet.

McAdams employs all styles of dance in her choreography, relying heavily on classical technique. “It’s not all tutus and pointe shoes,” she says. Demonstrating a continuing commitment to the local culture, McAdams hopes that Alaska Native dancers will share the Nutcracker stage in the future.

“The Alaska version is the most popular with the audience,” McAdams says of the three rotating Nutcrackers. “The dancers like being able to change versions every production.”

Casey C. Davenport is on faculty at three local studios in Portland, Oregon, and is director of the Facebook page Ballet Teachers Unite!