This month’s upcoming run of “Nutcracker” performances by the Northwest Ballet School and Company will be the 34th production of the iconic Christmas ballet, and for Director Marisa Roth, it’s shaping up to be an especially emotional one.
It’s the kind of event that Roth has watched draw generations of families. In her description, she has seen mothers bringing their children, and then years and years later those same mothers bringing their grandchildren. There are also families that have sent generations of children to study at the school and dance in its performances.
Still, the pandemic disrupted the annual tradition in 2020, and lingering concerns over large gatherings led to an abbreviated performance in 2021, which Roth said was a sort of Cliffs Notes variation on the ballet. Having to skip, or deviate, from something so dear to her gave Roth a renewed sense of appreciation for the holiday tradition that has at times brought her to tears.
This year, there are no caveats or canceled performances. The “Nutcracker” is back in its full form, with a slate of three performances planned between Saturday Nov. 26 and Sunday Nov. 27 at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts.
“It’s so exciting, I feel like we haven’t held anything back this year. We have cookies in the concession stand, we’ve got nutcrackers for sale again and merchandise, and we’ve got the full story and the littles. It’s so great, I never want to take it for granted,” Roth said. “You don’t ever want to go ‘Oh, we do this all the time.’ I always say to myself that the day the music doesn’t make me cry, and the kids don’t make me scream with excitement and joy, then I probably should think about hanging up the pointe shoes. But until then, I don’t feel ashamed about feeling passionate about what I do and laying it on the line because art can be vulnerable, and that’s what’s so cool about doing it live.”
The cast is primarily school-aged children as young as 8, and teenagers in their senior year of high school. Roth noted that she’s watched seniors Calli Jerman and Joelle Folkman take on different roles throughout the years, from all the way down to shy little mice and soldiers, to their premiere roles now as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen.
“The Nutcracker” was originally a story written in 1810 by the writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, which was called “Nutcracker and Mouse King.”
According to a 2012 NPR story, the original story was darker than the version that has risen to popularity. Hoffmann’s original tells the story of a girl who awakens in the night to discover mice and toy soldiers engaged in a battle that may in fact be a nightmare she is experiencing. The French writer Alexander Dumas wrote a lighter version of the story, and then in 1892 it was adapted into a Russian ballet, scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In the version that modern audiences have come to recognize, a girl named Clara is given a Christmas gift of a magical nutcracker, which in her dreams accompanies her on a journey that begins with the nutcracker coming to life and doing battle with the King of the Mice, and progresses into a journey into another land, in which snow, sweets, and celebration await.
Auditions took place in September, and rehearsal has been ongoing since then. This year’s performance hews closely to the original, but Roth said that she typically likes to add limited adjustments to the show on a year-to-year basis so that repeat audiences can see something new without losing out on enjoying the core components of the Nutcracker.
“There’s a lot of different ways you can do it according to your cast. We stick to the story. You can count on a rat, you can count on the nutcracker, you can count on the Sugar Plum Fairy,” she said.
“Whether or not you are brand new, or your girlfriend’s dragging you, or your family’s dragging you because your sister’s in it, or you are the grandma that’s been taking your daughter since she was two, there’s just something about the kickoff of the Christmas season, there’s something about Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music,” Roth said. “There’s just really something beautiful about getting away from the screen and being inundated in colors and music and movement and stories.”
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