Dec 3 — New 'Nutcracker' unwrapped
Dec 12 — Spectacular 'Nutcracker' works magic for holidays

New 'Nutcracker' unwrapped

Ballet Arizona redesigns sets, costumes, dance

Richard Nilsen — The Arizona Republic — Dec. 3, 2006 — Page A&E 1
The Nutcracker comes around once a year. It's a tradition.

But this year, Ballet Arizona's version of the holiday ballet is a new tradition.

"What we had was a poor man's version of The Nutcracker," says Ballet Arizona's artistic director, Ib Andersen. "This is a rich man's version."

The updated $1.8 million production premieres Saturday at Symphony Hall.

"Since Day 1 when I got here, seven years ago, I have been wanting a new Nutcracker," Andersen says.

Andersen inherited an older production, which was fine in its heyday, but the costumes and sets were getting ragged and threadbare, and some new choreography didn't match the old scenery.

"The old one was so drab, but the new one is going to be a Rolls-Royce in terms of production values."

A new production is an expensive proposition: There are new sets to build, new costumes to design, new lighting, new choreography. It all takes time.

Ballet Arizona was given the chance to attempt the feat when it received a $1.3 million grant from the Sybil B. Harrington Trust.

It is all worth it because, for most ballet companies in North America, ticket sales from a popular Nutcracker make the rest of the season possible.

"There wouldn't be ballet in America if it weren't for The Nutcracker," Andersen says. "It's a reality."

At Ballet Arizona, The Nutcracker is responsible for just less than 30 percent of the year's $4.9 million budget.

"I hope it will be even more, this year," Andersen says.

So happy she could dance

The new production has all-new set designs by Carey Wong and ravishing costumes by Fabio Toblini.

"These are the best costumes I've worn in my 12 years as a principal dancer," says Astrit Zejnati, who will dance the Cavalier in the ballet. "You feel much better in these costumes, and you dance much better."

Toblini, Wong and Andersen worked together for a year honing their interpretation of the ballet and finding ways to harmonize their concepts.

"We didn't have a single overriding concept for the new production," Toblini says. "It's best not to overconceptualize the story. We decided to have fun with it."

Toblini wanted his costumes to mark clear differences between the two worlds: the first half, which is a Christmas party, and the second, which depicts the young Clara's dream sequences, including the battle with the mouse army.

The mice are completely different this year.

"I never really liked the sweet little Disney mice being slaughtered," Toblini says. "So I thought the mice shouldn't be so sympathetic.

These mice ain't so nice

"In this production, the mice look like subway rats. That's what I was thinking. I live in New York City, so I know what they look like. I saw them running on the tracks and said, 'They're perfect, so ugly and nasty,' so you'll be happy when they die."

The Mouse King now is 9 feet tall, says Carolyn Mitchell, Ballet Arizona's costume director, who's charged with turning Toblini's designs into reality.

'The Nutcracker'

What: Ballet Arizona's new production of the Tchaikovsky holiday classic.

When: 7:30 pm Saturday, Dec. 13-15 and 20; 1 and 5 pm next Sundya an dDec. 17; 2 and 7:30 pm Dec. 16, 21-23, 26 and 27; 1:30 pm Dec 24.

Where: Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second Street, Phoenix.

Admission: $10 - $104

Details: 602-381-1096,

"Nine feet tall, and that's not counting his crown," she says. "We can't even move him through the halls here at the studio; we have to tip him over."

The costume is built on a backpack and balanced, "but it's not an easy costume to wear," she says.

The Nutcracker is different from most ballets: A good part of its appeal is theatrical rather than terpsichorean. Audiences love the snow effects and the growing tree in Act 2.

Tree-mendous effect

Scenic designer Carey Wong of Seattle has come up with a doozy of a tree.

"I don't want to give away what type of tree you'll see, but ours grows and moves as it is growing," he says. "It winds up enveloping the entire stage."

It's an effect that happens in several stages as the dream sequence progresses.

"Everything in that scene changes, and parts of the parlor become distorted, large and exaggerated. It's a different technology than any I've ever used in a show."

Wong extols lighting designer Michael Korsch's special effects, which include projections.

"He's created some digital images that run through the entire show. This is a world where anything and everything can come alive."

The old production was a hodge-podge of costumes, sets and choreography left over from the days when Michael Uthoff was artistic director. It served its function for more than a decade, but it became harder and harder to keep the old production going.

"Some of the costumes from the party scene just disintegrated," Mitchell says. "And we didn't have funds then to do a new Nutcracker, so we just looked in our back room and found some fabric that we had to put together dresses from what we had. It wasn't designed; it wasn't coordinated. It worked, but it wasn't an artistic design.

"That's why this show is so good. It's designed by Fabio from beginning to end. It's coordinated in style, color and artistry. I just love the color in this show."

Sets are set for years

The new production sets are expected to last for at least 15 years.

Most new productions take up to 18 months to organize and create. Although the artistic staff has been talking about this production for a year, only in May did it begin putting it together as a physical reality.

"Because we had to do it so fast, we had shops across the U.S. working on our costumes," Mitchell says.

The sets were spread across four fabrication shops, in England, Oregon, New York and Arizona.

"We started in May, and the design process keeps going on and on," Toblini says. "When you're just on paper, you go back and revise constantly, adjusting to the sets and the demands of the dance. You keep tweaking up until opening night.

"Thank the gods for opening night, or I would never be done with anything." 

Spectacular 'Nutcracker' works magic for holidays

Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Dec. 12, 2006
In Hollywood, they have a phrase about production budgets: Is the money spent visible "on the screen?"

Ballet Arizona's new Nutcracker cost the company $1.8 million, and you can see every penny up there on the stage.

In terms of sheer theatrical spectacle, The Nutcracker is a complete winner. It is one of those productions where, when the curtain rises, the audience applauds the scenery. Not just applause: hoots and whoops.

The overture begins with a digital animation projected on a scrim: We see the village from a bird's-eye view. It moves, like a crane shot, to the magician Drosselmeier's house, when the lighting behind the scrim shows him inside packing Christmas gifts. The mix of digital with good old-fashioned stagecraft sets the tone for what follows.

The Nutcracker, more than any other ballet, is more event than dance. Especially in America, where it has become a holiday tradition, it delights children with what is for many their first taste of theater. And it gives them lots of magic: snow falling, trees growing, mice fighting, cannon firing. It is to dance what Jurassic Park is to movies.

And Ib Andersen's new version gives the audience all that in spades. The evening is total delight.

Over and over, some coup de theatre leaves the audience gasping, as when the entire back of the stage drops away in a skein of floating red silk to reveal the Sugar Plum Fairy behind. Or the snow in which the Snow Angels dance - this time more blizzard than flurry.

The biggest change from the old production is the Battle with the Mouse Army. Last year, the whole thing was perfunctory at best. This year, with new costumes that turn the mice into 6-foot ratlike rodents, scurrying on all fours along the stage, the battle becomes a serious affair, and the climax of the first act.

Andersen is certainly right to focus so much attention on the theatricality of the ballet, because Nutcracker's appeal is not to aficionados of dance, but to children.

So although there is some wonderful dancing, including a sensual Arabian Dance, owing as much to modern dance as to classical ballet, that brought screams of approval from the audience and the traditional pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, it is the theater that reigns in this Nutcracker, not the dance.

Special praise must be sent to young Carly Booth as Clara. Unlike many young dancers in the part, she has genuine stage presence, and it showed, not just in her dancing, but in her gestures and facial expression.

There are some who may complain that some of the new production verges on vulgar - the twitching of the Mouse King as he dies, for instance - but it is these enlivening details that make the production so appealing to the kids: At intermission, there were kids running up and down the aisles on all fours in imitation of the mice. They loved it.
Back to Russian Arizona NEWS