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Sacramento Ballet Remakes A Holiday Classic in ‘The Nutcracker’

Jonathan Harris, left, and Shania Rasmussen star in the Sacramento Ballet production of "The Nutcracker."

For many Sacramentans, it isn’t Christmastime without a trip to the Sacramento Ballet‘s “The Nutcracker.” For a couple of decades at least, that meant former artistic director Ron Cunningham’s version, based on the original 1892 choreography of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, for the Russian Imperial Ballet.

This year, Sacramento Ballet artistic director Amy Seiwert is introducing her own version of “The Nutcracker,” also inspired by the choreography of Ivanov and Petipa, as nearly all versions are. Seiwert is one of only half a dozen women choreographers in the country to have a version of “The Nutcracker” currently being produced. There are significant differences between Seiwert’s ballet and Cunningham’s, including several that have become audience favorites.

A scene in which mourning members of the mice army carry their dead king off on a stretcher (played for comic effect) has been eliminated because, as Seiwert said, to include it would be “copying Ron. That scene is so typical of Ron’s playful humor that I could only be ripping it off.” The scene of the gingerbread boy jumping out of an oven was trimmed for a similar reason.

Seiwert’s version is ambitious and illustrates a contemporary sensibility that is at home in the historical ballet. One change from Cunningham’s (and others’) version is immediately obvious: The main character is named Marie, rather than Claire. Marie is the name of the girl in the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann that the ballet was based upon. In Seiwert’s version, Marie is closer to age 15 than 8 as Claire was presented. This allows for the casting of a member of the ballet company rather than a child as Marie.

Seiwert slyly introduces a sense of self-awareness in Marie, giving her strength in the nightmare scene to endure the torment of the mice and come through it with confidence that will remain with her. This gives character to the girl who was basically an excuse for a lot of great dancing around her.

Making Marie a girl on the cusp of maidenhood also makes possible the introduction of some innocent flirting with a young man – nephew of toymaker Drosselmeyer. It is this character who accompanies Marie on her visit to the exotic dream lands of the second act.

There is a subtle insertion in the first act that presages the “divertissements” – the various entertaining ethnic dances – of the second act. Seiwert slips into the party scene of the first act some dolls of various nations. The dolls return – as full-fledged dancers – in the entertainment performances of the second act. No attention is called to the dolls – a small mistake, perhaps – so their appearance as dancers in the second act doesn’t seem as smart a change as it is. Their appearance in Act One gives context to their appearance in Marie’s dream adventure.

These changes, and a few others, give continuity and unexpected substance to Seiwert’s interpretation of the ballet. The costumes, the staging, the music of Tchaikovsky and the outstanding dancing of the ballet company will, no doubt, make the ballet a continuing holiday tradition.

The question is, how long will it take audiences to as fully embrace this new version as it has the familiar, decades-old presentation.

“The Nutcracker” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2 p.m. Friday-Sunday at the Community Center Theater, thru December 23. The Sunday matinee is sold out. Tickets are $25-$100. For more information , call (916) 808-5181 or go to SacBallet.org.

Photo by Keith Sutter.

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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