It’s a Christmas classic with deep roots in Russian culture. Even so, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker currently at the National Arts Centre manages to step beyond that tradition with a version as Canadian as shinny on a frozen pond. That’s not just a comparison. Hockey is actually a part of the show.
With The Nutcracker set to mark its 125th birthday on December 18, the ballet has gone through more than a few incarnations. Even a beloved favourite can use a bit of freshening up now and then to ensure new generations of little ones are left squealing rather than squirming in their seats. But how to do that?
“I wanted to make it Canadian but I wanted to respect the traditions of the original Petipa/Ivanov version,” says Royal Winnipeg Ballet Executive Artistic Director André Lewis referring to choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
So, in the late 1990s, at a time when Lewis had barely started the job he has now held for 21 years, he faced a big decision, one that took two years to finally make: restore the tired and very different version of The Nutcracker Royal Winnipeg Ballet had been doing for the previous 25 years (it was centred around a birthday party rather than Christmas) or create something entirely new.
“The version we had was wearing out. You had to build new costumes, new sets, new everything. Would we keep the same production or build a new one? So I made the decision to build a whole new one and abandon the version we’d been doing.”
The result is a production with a distinct ‘Made-in-Canada’ stamp on it. Yes, much of the traditional choreography and many of the scenes adhere to tradition. As well, there is of course Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score. But instead of Russia, this Royal Winnipeg Ballet version is set in 1913 Winnipeg. That’s only the start. Given the ballet already is all about a little girl’s fantastical dream, it wasn’t all that much of a stretch for Lewis to add more moments of whimsy, this time with a Canadian flavour.
“I wanted to provide a perspective on Nutcracker that was not thought of. Nobody else that I’m aware has a Canadian angle to Nutcracker. I’ve seen a Russian-angle Nutcracker. I’ve seen a German angle, a French angle, all of those things but we’ve done a Canadian one. And you know people connect to this.”
It’s not entirely surprising Lewis would want to give the ballet more of a home-grown feel. Born nearly 63 years ago in Gatineau (Hull at the time), he was raised in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings and went on to premiere this production in Ottawa at the NAC nearly twenty years ago. He’s well acquainted with the power of national symbols and there is no shortage of them in this Nutcracker.
Bears and reindeer
There is a Parliament Building with Ceremonial Guards, a Hudson’s Bay blanket, Royal North-West Mounted Police and yes, that hockey game. Then a couple of years ago, the production added what has become a reliable crowd-pleaser: a dozen youngsters parading across the stage costumed as polar bear cubs. Reindeer pulling a sleigh are the latest addition. About the only thing missing is the Sugar Plum Fairy munching on Timbits in the Land of the Sweets.
“I have never tired of watching Nutcracker and watching the reaction people have to it. It’s a pleasure,” says Lewis.
“I wanted to make it more Canadian.”
He has and judging from the reaction of the kids in the audience during a preview for school groups, this version of the Nutcracker, despite its years, still has the capacity to hit a home run, or perhaps more appropriately, put the puck in the net.
Tickets to the Nutcracker at the National Arts Centre are available online or at the NAC box office. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 1:30pm, evening shows begin at 7pm Wednesday through Sunday.