by Elyse Wild | photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Ballet
From the ethereal notes of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the symphonic rush of the “March of the Toy Soldiers,” the music of The Nutcracker is synonymous with a season that arguably holds more magic than any other. For more than 50 years, American ballet audiences have been captivated by this story of a little girl who befriends a nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve to battle an evil mouse king.
This year, the Grand Rapids Ballet returns to DeVos Performance Hall on Dec. 12-15 and Dec. 20-22 to treat audiences to a resplendent rendition of this adored tale with production design by beloved children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg in collaboration with Tony-award winning set designer Eugene Lee, choreography by internationally sought-after choreographer Val Caniparoli and music performed by the Grand Rapid Symphony. Attendees are drawn into the story’s magical world before they even take their seats: The lobby of DeVos Hall will be transformed into a Land of Sweets by Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, featuring dancers in stained-glass sugar, bells made from blown sugar and more.
The story of The Nutcracker was initially written in 1816 by Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman and had much darker themes than the version that was first performed on the Moscow stage in 1892, adapted and choreographed by Lev Ivanov. Legendary Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky created the original score. The signature notes of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” — the ones that immediately usher us into the story’s fantastical realm — is created by the bell-like sound of the celeste, an instrument patented in 1886.
“The score alone is one of Tchaikovsky’s best,” James Sofranko, artistic director for the Grand Rapids Ballet, said. “I think the score has a lot to do with why The Nutcracker is so famous and so well known.”
American-audiences were introduced to The Nutcracker when the San Fransisco Opera Ballet performed it in 1944, with choreography by William Christensen. It would be 10 years before it was performed by another ballet in the United States; in 1954 The New York City Ballet performed it, as choreographed by George Balanchine. The New York production was a smash hit, and The Nutcracker established a foothold in our collective imaginations, becoming the holiday tradition that prevails today. In a survey of member dance companies, Dance/USA reported that from 2008-2017, Nutcracker attendance increased 14 percent, and ticket sales grew from $30 million to $51 million.
“I can’t really explain it, and I don’t think anyone really can, why it is such a huge phenomenon in America, but it has become something we do as a yearly Christmas time ritual,” Sofranko expressed. “I am very happy that the ballet has become part of people’s lives in that way.”
Grand Rapids resident Pamela Pietryga first saw The Nutcracker performed in New York City when she was 12. From the time her daughters were 4 years old, she took them to see the Grand Rapids Ballet perform it. It is so much a part of their lives, in fact, that she and her husband saw The Nutcracker the night he purposed to her. As members of the Grand Rapids Ballet School Junior Company, all three of Peitryga’s daughters have performed in the show — an event, she says, they cherish.
“It is a part of our lives,” Pietryga expressed. “We wouldn’t do Christmas without it … they love it, they love the whole feeling of being on the DeVos stage and being involved with the professional company. They are awe-struck. It is a beautiful experience.”
This year, Pietryga’s 17-year-old daughter, Lily, is performing in several roles, including a soldier, the mother mouse, a maid and part of the Chinese dragon. She has performed with the Grand Rapids Ballet for the past 8 years, and in 2015 played the role of young Clara, an experience she describes as a surreal.
“I looked up to the older dancers wearing the beautiful costumes, and I always wanted to be Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Lily said. “When I found out I would be playing Clara, I started crying because I was so happy and emotional. I would be setting an example for the little girls who looked up to those roles just like I did.”
Up to 80 children will be performing in this year’s production. Sofranko is familiar with the thrill of a young dancer performing The Nutcracker on a large stage with a professional company.
“It was something I did as a kid, and I would say that my performing career started when I was a party kid in The Nutcracker with the Cincinnati Ballet,” he said. “It is such a great experience for the young ones.”
Sofranko has been involved with productions of The Nutcracker for his entire career, yet the excitement and captivation in his voice are clear as he describes his favorite elements of the show.
“I love that transformation scene when it goes from Clara’s living room into the battle scene,” he expressed. “It is a fantastic, magical moment, it is one of my all-time
favorite theatrical moments, ever. I look forward to it every year.”
As an artistic director, Sofranko says he now observes the show more from an audience perspective than that of a dancer. This allows him an intimate view of the enchantment audiences experience during The Nutcracker.
“I get to see the reactions of the members of the audience a lot more, “ he expressed. “It is a treat for me to tangibly witness the children who are experiencing the ballet and the families that make a tradition out of it. It is all around art — live performance and music and dancing — and it is wonderful to see families embrace performing arts in this way.”