Grand Rapids Ballet is working on an all-new production of “The Nutcracker” — designed by GR native Chris Van Allsburg.
By Terri Finch Hamilton
There’s an extra scurry of mouse paws these days, and the snowflakes seem a bit more magical.
“The Nutcracker” is getting a makeover, and though the debut is months away, you wouldn’t know it over at the home of Grand Rapids Ballet.
“Most people are thinking about back to school, but we have snow flurries in Studio A and a Mouse King fight in Studio B,” says Patricia Barker, the ballet company’s artistic director, taking a break from a particularly bustling morning.
This will be the 42-year-old ballet company’s first entirely new production of “The Nutcracker” in three decades.
Adding to the excitement: Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg is designing the production with Tony Award-winning designer Eugene Lee. It will be choreographed by Val Caniparoli, winner of the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Choreography.
“Sure, Christmas is a time for stars, but there’s an especially big jolt of star power happening here.
“The Nutcracker” is one of the most beloved productions around, with a long and successful tradition in Grand Rapids. For many area youngsters, decked out in velvet dresses or their best church pants, it’s their first introduction to a live professional production.
And, oh, what an introduction.
The beloved ballet tells the story of a young girl named Clara, her mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer, and a magical nutcracker doll that comes to life on Christmas Eve.
Scenes from Grand Rapids Ballet’s previous production of “The Nutcracker” include, the toy soldier performs for party guests.
Everybody has their favorite scenes — spectacles so transfixing they keep the wiggliest kids statue-still in their seats in DeVos Performance Hall.
Toy soldiers fighting mice with flashing, popping cannons. Dancing snowflakes. Delightfully spinning Russians. A giant Mother Ginger whose hoop skirt dispenses delicious-looking bonbons. The entrancing Sugar Plum Fairy.
It’s all pretty wonderful. So, why change it?
The production, performed for about 30 years, could use some new zip, Barker says.
“The original was done just as our school of ballet moved to become a professional company,” she says. “There’s new technology now, new ideas.”
And a chance for superstar Van Allsburg, beloved author and illustrator of “The Polar Express” and a host of other enchanting children’s’ books, to make this production Grand Rapids’ own.
“It’s important for us in Grand Rapids to have a production of our own, something special for ourselves,” Barker says.
And something to share. Barker’s plan is to take the production on the road — to other cities in Michigan and beyond.
“It will be a cultural export of Michigan,” she says. “That’s what Chris is. He’s one of ours — a son of Grand Rapids. He’s beloved here. He seemed not just the right fit for this, but the only fit.”
Naturally, we want a sneak peak. A few tidbits. A glimmer of what to expect.
But Barker’s being pretty cagey.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is a beautiful story, but it got a little warped along the way,” she says. “This gets back to the original story: Clara coming of age, family traditions, giving gifts — that whole special time when everything seems bigger than life.
“The story now is richer, fuller, more in-depth,” she says. “I think you’ll be able to follow the story even better.”
The changes, she says, will make sense.
“For instance, the story is about Clara coming of age,” she says. “Why would a girl dream of a handsome prince, then let a beautiful sugar plum fairy dance with him? There will be a new connection between Clara and the prince.”
And Van Allsburg, she says, is exploring some new territory. His drawings are the foundation for the set.
“Chris wanted to dive into how Clara travels,” Barker says. “Where is the portal? How did she get from Lemonade Lake to a seashell pulled by golden dolphins to a marzipan castle?”
Wait, wait, wait. What?
Oh, yes. We’ll see some pieces of the original story we haven’t seen before, Barker says.
In the original story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, Clara rides in a seashell pulled by golden dolphins to a castle made of sugary marzipan.
Barker gets almost giddy talking about it.
Turns out her husband has a copy of the original short story that once belonged to his great-grandmother.
“Chris found nuances in that book that haven’t been explored before — subtle elements he’s bringing out in his drawings,” she says.
“His strength is in his books, and he wants the stage to look like it’s from a book page that has come alive.”
“How can you not like golden dolphins pulling a sea shell across Lemonade Lake?” Barker asks. “Talk about wonderful. How could anybody leave that out?”
Now, it’s back.
“We see it all through Chris’s eyes — and he’s an incredible storyteller,” she says.
Van Allsburg’s partners in the production aren’t shabby, either.
Scenes from Grand Rapids Ballet’s previous production of “The Nutcracker”the Nutcracker and his soldiers do battle with the Mouse King and his mice cohorts.
Eugene Lee, the renowned set designer who’s crafting the set based on Van Allsburg’s drawings, is a Tony Award-winning set designer of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Wicked,” and of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”
He’s also the longtime production designer for NBC-TV’s “Saturday Night Live” and recently designed the new set for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Lee and Van Allsburg were neighbors in Providence, Rhode Island, and their wives are good friends.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli has won the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Choreography. One of the most prolific choreographers of the last decade, he’s house choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet and also has choreographed for Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
He and Barker worked together at Pacific Northwest, where she danced in several ballets he choreographed.
This is Caniparoli’s third Nutcracker, having choreographed the ballet in for Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet.
“Now that I have two under my belt, it’s exciting to dive into the same story but in a new way,” Caniparoli says in a phone conversation from his home in San Francisco. “It’s a challenge — and I love challenges. I’m as excited as Grand Rapids is.”
“The Nutcracker” is one of the most difficult ballets a choreographer can take on, Caniparoli says.
“The expectations? Oh, my gosh. They’re huge,” he says. “You’re working with a lot of children and you have to be innovative with them, as well as with the adults.”
Everybody has their favorite parts. If he changes them, does he worry the audience will throw things at him?
“You can’t be afraid of, ‘I didn’t see that part this time and I’m disappointed,’” Caniparoli says. “We’ll bring something new to the table, and that becomes the new tradition.
“Some people will be seeing it for the first time,” he says. “So this will grab them and this will become their tradition.”
Any hints of what’s coming?
He laughs. “Nothing I can tell you yet,” he says. “We’re still working it all out.”
One of the longtime traditions of Grand Rapids Ballet’s Nutcracker — and of productions everywhere — has been to invite local celebrities and well-known residents to play the part of Mother Ginger.
Gussied up in heavy makeup and layers of petticoats, Mother Ginger looms larger than life over the stage, virtually unrecognizable beneath the garish get-up. The huge wig, voluminous eyelashes and oversized bosom are staples, even when Mother Ginger is played by a man.
“Mother Ginger is a big and ‘out there’ character,” Barker says.
Will she be “out there” this year?
Barker chooses her words carefully, but the bottom line is, probably not — at least, not in the way we’re used to seeing.
“We wanted to create parts for the community to participate in where people in the audience can recognize them, and they feel comfortable doing them,” Barker says. “Parts with — how can I say this? — a little more dignity.”
Not unlike Mother Ginger, the lead-up to the premiere “is exciting, scary, all-encompassing,” Barker says.
“It will be our crowning jewel.”GR