Oregon Ballet Theatre brings holiday tradition to Juneau

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2004

It's a holiday tradition in major cities across the country. You dress up, you go to the theater, and you watch "The Nutcracker," the famous ballet originally written by E.T.A. Hoffman, scored by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Pepita and Lev Ivanov.

When it premiered on Dec. 18, 1892, at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, it was considered below average.

"For dancers there is rather little in it," said one early review, according to www.ballet.co.uk. "For art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward."

Since then, of course, it's become the best-known ballet of all time.

New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine often is credited with popularizing "The Nutcracker" in the United States when he debuted his choreography in 1954.

And, in fact, it's the Balanchine version that Juneau will see, when the Oregon Ballet Theatre presents the show at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28. The show is sponsored by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and will involve 22 local dancers and more than 100 volunteers.

For information and tickets, visit local bookstores or call the arts council at 586-ARTS.

Although Juneau Dance Unlimited and L'Ecole de Ballet have done their own versions of the story, this is the first time a professional company has come to Juneau to perform the ballet, said outdoing JAHC Executive Director Sybil Davis.

"This is one of the big dreams that the board has had, and that I guess I've had, because dance is an important thing to me," Davis said. "I like all art forms, but dance is particularly part of your soul. It's exquisite, and it's really lacking in Juneau. There are a lot of talented young people who would love to know more and would love to have this kind of opportunity. I've seen too many talented young men and woman, and they just don't have the training, the exposure and the support."

The arts council hoped to present the full "Nutcracker," but the size of the JDHS auditorium proved to be too restrictive.

Keller Auditorium, home to the Oregon Ballet Theatre, has a 60-foot wide proscenium, whereas the one at JDHS is 36 feet wide. From left to right, Keller's deck measures 80 feet. JDHS's is 54.

OBT Production Manager Jessica Flores visited JDHS and Juneau this summer to scout whether the production was even feasible, given the town's lack of spacious venues.

"We would have liked to present the full ballet, but our theater (in Portland) is more than twice the size of this stage," Flores said. "A lot of scenic elements would not fit."

So then, each performance will begin with Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco," a story-less ballet of short sketches, which he completed in 1941.

Following a short intermission, the company will present a pared-down vignette version of Act 1, written specially for Juneau by OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and intended as a prologue to Act II.

"The first act of Nutcracker is a really a big party scene," Davis said. "Herr Drosselmeyer presents the Nutcracker to Marie, and the young prince saves her. And the Mouse King and the Nutcracker come to life."

"But it doesn't really get into the tour de force corps ballet work," she said. "The full Act II has all the big dances and the meat of the ballet."

Act II begins with about 22 5- and 6-year-olds on stage dressed as angels. All of the angels are from Juneau and auditioned with OBT Ballet Mistress Tracey Taylor in October. They've been practicing on Saturdays at the Elks Lodge with local dance instructors Janice Holst, Janice Hurley and Philip Krauter.

The Anchorage Concert Association presents the Cincinnati Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker." Davis originally inquired about that version, but the technical shortcomings of the JDHS auditorium were too limiting.

The Oregon Ballet Theatre came highly recommended. OBT is a full-time company, meaning it has full-time contracted dancers throughout the year. The company has an annual budget of up to $7 million and a full summer school of about 180 children. You can find more information at www.obt.org.

This is not OBT's first trip to Alaska. The company toured Anchorage from 1993 to 1995 with former artistic director James Canfield's version of "The Nutcracker."

Last year, the OBT replaced Canfield's work with the choreography of the Russian-born Balanchine.

Balanchine's work is so closely guarded by his estate that it's considered a coup for a company to gain licensing rights to one of his ballets. OBT is the first and only West Coast ballet company to perform Balanchine's version.

OBT is bringing 20 company dancers, 11 apprentices, two children (Macy Sullivan and Owen MacDaniels, to play Marie and the Prince) from its summer school, the children's parents, three production crew members, one wardrobe head, one wig and makeup head, artistic director Stowell and ballet mistress Taylor.

OBT will bring two of its scenic Nutcracker drops, whereas the production at Keller uses 25. OBT also is bringing little tuffets and stools for Marie and the Prince to sit in on Act II, rather than its full throne. Auditorium manager Lucas Hoiland, Jim Fowler and the JDHS stage crew are building a small boat for the scene in Act II in which Marie and the young prince enter and leave the Land of the Sweets.

OBT Lighting Director Michael Mazzola created a modified lighting scheme, with more than 500 instruments, for the high school stage. It has been shipped to Hoiland.

"We have pared down our resources for the room, but it shouldn't detract from anything," OBT production manager Flores said.

"We're going to have to go by visuals - soft curtains, props and scrims that are lit and depict the imagery," Davis said. "It will be beautiful, a really great way to frame the company."

The full "Nutcracker" usually utilizes 30-odd company members and 75 children. OBT also performs with a live orchestra, something that the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council hopes to build toward in the future.

"This is really the most that we could possibly do this year," Davis said. "We can't do it with a live orchestra yet. But maybe years down the road, we can. In the future, you could have telescoping trees in the first act and live music."

"If we were able to build scenery specifically to whatever venue we had, it would take even more time to set up," Flores said. "But I would say that's our goal."

"I'm hoping that we can make this a tradition," Davis said. "And I'm hoping we can bring up our level of dance instruction and make it consistent with the opportunity to perform as well as the opportunity to see performers. We want the highest caliber we can get. We deserve it. We're the capital city. We travel all over the world."

Shipping the set will be an exercise in precision and logistics. The cost of shipping one-way is $6,000. The cargo includes sets, wardrobes and even portable warm-up bars for the dancers. The cargo will leave Portland on Monday, Nov. 15. Flores, Mazzola and Taylor are expected to arrive on Monday, Nov. 22. The wardrobe will arrive on Tuesday, Nov. 23, and the company will get to Juneau on Wednesday, Nov. 24.

Taylor will run a few rehearsals with the young Juneau actors before "The Nutcracker" opens.

The set will be torn down after Sunday's final performance and shipped back to Oregon, beginning Monday morning. It will arrive by Thursday, Dec. 2, and the company will re-load in its home, Keller Auditorium, on Friday, Dec. 3. "The Nutcracker" opens in downtown Portland on Friday, Dec. 10, and runs through Christmas Eve.

Tickets have been selling briskly for the last few weeks, according to the Juneau arts council. The show has been publicized throughout the villages of Southeast and into the Yukon. The Baranof Hotel is offering a special deal for a weekend stay, coinciding with the play, to entice out-of-town visitors.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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