Philadelphia Style, December 2012
Barbara Weisberger still speaks fondly of the tree that became known to some as “Barbara’s Folly.”
When the founder and former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet staged the company’s first production of The Nutcracker back in 1968, the centerpiece was a huge Plexiglas tree, in keeping with Weisberger’s desire for an original and modern take on the story. “I would not have any candy canes or anything like that,” Weisberger recalls—though her desire to also have Plexiglas stalagmites onstage was shot down when her staff pointed out, “[Those could] kill someone!”
That tree serves as a fitting metaphor for Pennsylvania Ballet’s journey with the holiday classic. For one thing, notes Weisberger, since Plexiglas was manufactured by a local company, Pennsylvania Ballet got a healthy corporate donation for that first production.
The pas de deux between art and commerce and between tradition and change runs through the Pennsylvania Ballet’s history with The Nutcracker. The company, which celebrates its golden anniversary in 2013, also marks 25 years this holiday season with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker—the crown jewel in the canon created by the legendary choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet. From December 8–30, Pennsylvania Ballet presents 23 performances of Balanchine’s gem at the Academy of Music.
The Pennsylvania Ballet is one of only seven companies worldwide licensed to perform the Balanchine version, which premiered at NYCB in 1954. But like the magical toy itself, there have been a lot of transformations for Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker over the years. Even though Weisberger was a Balanchine protégée and the first child dancer he ever trained—“he was my professional father and I adored him,” says Weisberger—the company didn’t start using his version in full until 1987, after she had left Pennsylvania Ballet.
One thing that remains constant is ticket sales. Though the terms “bovine” and “ballet” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, few ballet companies would deny that The Nutcracker in any form is a cash cow. Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael Scolamiero says that 44 percent of the company’s annual earned income (which includes investments from endowments and revenues from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, along with ticket sales) comes from The Nutcracker. Last year, the show sold 37,568 tickets, adding $2.175 million to the company coffers. For a company that operates on an annual budget of $11 million and is gearing up for a January move into the $17.5 million Louise Reed Center for Dance—a new facility on Broad Street that brings the administrative, rehearsal, and school facilities under one roof—The Nutcracker provides a lot of fiscal sugarplums.
Given its popularity, one might expect that The Nutcracker also serves as a cultural gateway drug, turning families into repeat annual audiences for the show and into patrons for other offerings. But Scolamiero says that over half the audience for Nutcracker is new every year, and many of them don’t see other shows in the season. “It’s great that there’s this churn, and you get a lot of new faces coming into the theater,” he says. But, he adds, “when the [children] reach a certain age, especially boys, they stop looking at ballet as an option.”
To counter that tendency, the company promotes family matinees for other shows, such as their upcoming production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in March. For The Nutcracker, the company also offers add-on options, such as teas with the Sugar Plum Fairy herself. Scolamiero acknowledges that patron information captured through Nutcracker ticket sales “is a nice list to take advantage of, but we need to do more with it.”
Changes in choreography and design have kept patrons and artists on their toes over the years. The 1968 version mostly used the Balanchine second act, but the first act was more streamlined and included work by Robert Rodham, a student of Weisberger’s, who created the pas de deux for the Snow Queen and King, as well as the dance of the Snowflakes.
Budgetary concerns played a role in that first Nutcracker. Weisberger felt that the company’s smaller budgets might not allow for the “grand, elegant” Balanchine aesthetic that audiences familiar with NYCB expected. By 1987, then-artistic director Robert Weiss, a longtime dancer with NYCB, decided it was time to go the full Balanchine.
Current artistic director Roy Kaiser, who danced The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet every year from 1979–1992 before assuming his current role in 1995, identifies two enduring strengths of the Balanchine version. First, the principal children’s roles are performed by child dancers, rather than youthful-looking adults. Says Kaiser, “It is kind of a children’s story, one told through ballet. The original story [by E.T.A. Hoffmann] is kind of dark, but the way it has evolved as a ballet is as a children’s story, so I think it’s appropriate to have the children in it.” And, adds Kaiser, “The other thing is that Balanchine was such a musician. His choreography came from music. And the [Tchaikovsky] score is just fantastic. Thank God it is as good as it is.”
Ongoing seasonal hits like The Nutcracker also generate high revenues because they don’t require building costumes and sets from scratch every year. But even classics need face-lifts.
In 2007, Pennsylvania Ballet unveiled a new look for the 20th anniversary of the Balanchine Nutcracker, with sets by Canadian-born designer Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn (herself a former dancer). The focus was on a regional flavor, so Horne’s set suggests a Federal-style mansion familiar to Philadelphia audiences. It didn’t come cheaply—the company spent $950,000 on the redesign, which included 185 costumes. The most expensive costume Lynn designed in the show belongs to Mother Ginger, who wears an 40-pound dress—big enough to accommodate the children who scamper out from underneath it—that cost $10,000. Luckily, that redesign came before the economic collapse of 2008. Scolamiero says, “When we unveiled the new production in 2007, we expected it to do really well that year and then fall back a little, and it did; 2009 and 2010 were a little off, and that’s because of the economy.”
For dancers, a different kind of transformation and stamina is required, since many of them perform multiple roles. Principal dancer Ian Hussey, who has been dancing in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker since age nine, has played nearly every male role. He now dances the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier. “It’s very difficult when you’re doing the third show of the day on a three-show Sunday. It’s mentally and physically tough,” says Hussey. But he also notes “The guys have it a lot easier. The girls have it rough. It’s a lot of dancing, and very grueling.”
For soloist Gabriella Yudenich, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy is a childhood dream come true. Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and the late Alexei Yudenich, both danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet—her mother was in fact the first dancer hired in 1963—and her older brother danced the prince the first year they did the Balanchine version. “I watched him do it and I wanted to be in the party scene so badly, but I was too little,” says Yudenich. Now, when she dances the Sugar Plum Fairy herself, Yudenich says “The choreography is so breathtaking and the music…. I always go into it feeling fresh. I never think ‘Oh, this again.’”
Weisberger, who has seen The Nutcracker more times than anyone else associated with Pennsylvania Ballet, attributes its enduring appeal to the fact that, though the music is “so familiar and beloved,” the dancing itself transforms with the unique physical poetry the performers bring.
“Unlike other performing arts, even theater, dance is so ephemeral,” says Weisberger. “It’s there, and then it’s not. You can see the same ballet, but it is a completely different thing when you see [a new] dancer.”