Students and pros come together for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’
Though it premiered in Russia 120 years ago, “The Nutcracker” has become a cherished American institution over just the last seven decades or so, with its stateside debut in San Francisco in 1944 and with choreographer George Balanchine’s rejuvenated production of 1954.
The once forgotten Tchaikovsky-scored fantasy of family, toys, Christmas trimming, snow, sweets and sugar plumb fairies ushers in the holiday season each year across the U.S. on countless stages — its scenes and sounds now inextricably linked with the Yuletide spirit of childlike joy.
Dance companies all over the nation take on the fairy tale about a young girl, her nutcracker doll and her holiday dreams. For the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, “The Nutcracker” is a local mainstay for the professional company and also the biggest stage for its student dancers.
The local company prepares for the annual holiday extravaganza with an intense two-week rehearsal schedule. They then stage four performances in Santa Fe, N.M., four in Omaha, Neb., and finish off with four here in Aspen next weekend.
The production is downright epic, especially compared to the often stripped-down and modern sheen of Aspen Santa Fe’s performances. Along with the company’s 11 dancers, “The Nutcracker” brings in nine additional ballerinas, a group of traditional folk dancers, circus performers and two Russian dancers for a total cast of 60. Oh, and then there are the 140 children from the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet who fill the stage.
“When the curtain comes up, it is one cohesive group,” says Tom Mossbrucker, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s artistic director. “It’s really amazing to see. I think it’s a great time of year for us.”
For the kids in Aspen Santa Fe’s dance school, “The Nutcracker” provides an opportunity to dance beside the pros — and the biggest show of the year for them. They’re the stars of the party and battle scene of Act I, with some returning for the candy cane dance and Waltz of the Flowers in Act II.
The local kids practice for six weeks to get the performance right. A separate stable of young dancers perform those parts in the company’s performances in Aspen, Santa Fe and Omaha.
“It gives them an opportunity to see where they can take dance,” says Melanie Dosckocil, the Aspen school director for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, “to see the level of dedication the professionals put into their work. And the professional dancers are so great with the kids.”
Mossbrucker, who first performed in “The Nutcracker” at age 15, agreed that being a part of the production has marked the beginning of countless dancing careers.
“It’s a great experience for them to see what it’s like to be in a professional production,” he says.
The annual “Nutcracker” production also is a rare opportunity to see the local company performing classical ballet — replete with tutus and dancing on pointed toes.
While people might not associate Aspen Santa Fe Ballet with such traditional performances like “The Nutcracker,” the company’s proficiency in the classical style is at its heart. They practice classical dance every day in the studio, with women in point shoes and all. Like a musician learning scales before she can play improvisational jazz, the traditional moves central to “The Nutcracker” are an indispensable staple of Aspen Santa Fe’s repertoire.
“The contemporary works rely on the classical vocabulary,” Mossbrucker explains. “For the contemporary to look good, you have to have the classical down.”
Two of the pieces in Aspen Santa Fe’s upcoming winter lineup here also will include dancing on point.
The company’s progressive energy lends the holiday classic a spirited energy, aimed at delighting kids of all ages.
“We keep it entertaining,” Mossbrucker says. “We try to make it fast-paced and entertaining and funny, with a lot of great dancing.”
Many of the people in the audience got their first introduction to ballet and theatrical dance by seeing “The Nutcracker” as children, opening the door to a wider appreciation of the art — it’s like a gateway drug for modern dance. The show, at its best, can communicate the wonder and excitement of dance to children, opening their eyes to the possibilities of performance art.
“I like the fact that it touches children,” says Mossbrucker. “And for a lot of kids, it’s the first time they’re seeing a dance production — or any theater production. It’s so magical with the color and the lights, it’s really kind of an intense thing for children.”