Two visionaries offer their insights on the classic holiday ballet.
The Nutcracker ballet is so frequently performed around the U.S. every holiday season that it’s easy to have that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” attitude. However, that just isn’t the case: Interpretations of the ballet vary quite a bit. We spoke with choreographer–artistic directors Kenneth von Heidecke and Sergey Kozadayev, of the Von Heidecke Festival Ballet and Salt Creek Ballet, respectively, about their Nutcracker productions in Chicagoland this week.
“Now the Nutcracker has become a part of pop culture, but I want [Salt Creek Ballet’s version] to be above that,” says Kozadayev, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the ballet premiered in 1892. Salt Creek’s production opened November 24 in Hinsdale, moves to Aurora on Saturday 1 and has a final performance December 8 in University Park with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra providing live music.
As a boy, Kozadayev was familiar with the 1816 fairy tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann that is the basis for the ballet: Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffmann’s story is a dark tale about a young girl growing up in a loveless household—and the magical nutcracker doll her uncle gives her for Christmas. “It’s really a story about love and belief. Only Clara [the ballet’s protagonist] believes in the beautiful soul of this ugly nutcracker doll. And Drosselmeyer [her uncle] believes in Clara’s great, heroic soul. In my Nutcracker I am trying to reach to this concept of faith.”
Kozadayev notes that the original Nutcracker’s choreography has been lost over time, but adds that the music is so specific to the action of the ballet that it essentially creates a storyboard for the dance steps. He explains that choreographer Marius Petipa requested the music from the great composer Tchaikovsky, with very particular parameters: “For the battle scene in Act I, Petipa requested things like ‘playing trumpet for the attack, four bars of music.’ The music tells you what to do. That’s why so many Nutcrackers are similar.”
Von Heidecke, a native Chicagoan, did not grow up with Hoffman’s fairytale—but he did grow up with a taste for orchestral music. “I have loved classical music since I was old enough to turn a radio knob,” Von Heidecke says. “My mentor, [the famed Native American ballerina] Maria Tallchief, says I understand music. I have tremendous respect for Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker.”
It was Tallchief’s own mentor, George Balanchine, whose 1954 version of the Nutcracker was instrumental in popularizing the ballet here in the U.S. Now, it’s everywhere, there are versions of versions—a single performance can consist of scenes staged by different choreographers and directors.
As a music lover, Von Heidecke is especially looking forward to the company’s Harris Theater engagement. It’s the first time the troupe has raised enough funds to have live orchestral accompaniment from the New Philharmonic orchestra in the downtown Chicago venue.
He believes his version of the ballet benefits from being choreographed by one person. “It’s structurally sound,” he says. In addition, he enjoys tweaking the choreography every year, depending on the number of dancers he has and their skills.
“I always start with the ‘Snow’ scene,” he says, referring to the end of Act I, when an ensemble of female dancers representing snowflakes creates a lovely progression of images from a gentle snowfall to a full-on blizzard. “It’s the hardest to stage,” Von Heidecke says, “Getting the corps de ballet breathing simultaneously, with exact head and arm positions.”
And just like snowflakes, no two Nutcrackers are alike.
On Saturday 1, Salt Creek Ballet tiptoes into the Paramout Theatre, while the Von Heidecke dancers swirl into the Harris.