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High Hopes are on Louisville Ballet's New Nutcracker

Listen NowThis weekend, the Louisville Ballet raises the curtain on a ballet that has been two years in the making. A newly designed and choreographed version of “The Nutcracker.” And, as WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports, the company has a lot riding on the success of a ballet that’s more then a century old.

In 1892, The Nutcracker with its soaring score by Tchaikovsky premiered at the Imperial Ballet in Russia. But not until the 1950s did productions begin to proliferate in the United States. In 1954, George Balanchine, the late New York City Ballet artistic director, staged the story in his first full-length ballet for the company. And it became widely know during the decade when CBS televised parts of Balanchine’s piece into homes nationwide.Now, The Nutcracker is a staple each season for ballet companies from coast to coast, says dance historian and Barnard College professor Lynn Garafola."For American ballet companies, a huge part of their earned income comes from The Nutcracker,” she says.Box office sales often comprise up to 50 percent of many companies’ annual ticket sales. But there are also salient reasons for The Nutcracker’s appeal to audiences. Garafola cites its focus on a celebration in the home and how productions involve the community, often including adults and scores of children on stage and off. She also says its second act — with several divertissements or dance interludes — gave way to choreographers putting their own take on the ballet."And so in a sense, this meant that Nutcracker could be reinterpreted by different generations, in different localities, in a lot of different ways," she says. "It’s something that seems to have morphed over time into something that is no longer simply ballet."Those ideas were not lost on Louisville Ballet artistic director Bruce Simpson when the Brown Forman Corp. agreed two years ago to give the company a $1 million grant for a new Nutcracker production.Simpson says foremost — "It has to be a Nutcracker for Louisville."

He wanted it to have a stunning design and magical presentation. So, he enlisted top costume and scenic designers — even a magician who’s worked with Broadway musicals. And he wanted a choreographer whose work could reflect the sense of fluidity he sees the city reap from the Ohio River. For that, he chose Val Caniparoli, one of the country’s top ballet choreographers. Caniparoli got his start as a dancer and choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet. And he knows the Louisville Ballet dancers through leading them to stage some of his works. So, Simpson knew what he would get with Caniparoli."I know that his bar is set incredibly high. I mean this Nutcracker is unbelievably difficult for the dancers.In rehearsals, Caniparoli is focused but also has a certain ease. He and the dancers often discuss the choreography as they though they are teammates. But critics note that the work he puts on stage has rigor, drama and grace; it’s rooted in classical ballet but has contemporary moves that entail interesting bends of the back and dramatic use of the arms.As for The Nutcracker, Caniparoli still dances in San Francisco Ballet stagings, but he wanted to create his own choreography — with inspiration from some significant productions. Those are versions choreographed by some of the San Francisco Ballet’s early leaders — the Christenson brothers. The eldest, Willam Christiansen, choreographed the first full-length Nutcracker staged in the U.S. in 1944. Years later, his brother, Lew, staged his own version when he led the company. Caniparoli is familiar with both versions and says he’s worked to infuse the Louisville production with their spirit."The Christensen’s were big in Vaudeville; that’s their background. So, a lot of his ballets were very broad, very big actions, but it made sense and that stuck with me," Caniparolis says. "And there’s a lot of that technique in this work."In the meanwhile, ballet officials say ticket sales for the new production have been higher than expected. And with the curtain set to rise tomorrow, the ballet’s Bruce Simpson has a few hopes."I want the audience to recognize that what they’re seeing is the absolute best Nutcracker that can be achieved with the resources that Louisville has," he says. "But the bottom line is it has to entertain the audience."Beginning this weekend and throughout the month, audiences for the Louisville Ballet’s newly designed and choreographed Nutcracker will weigh in with their dollars and their own conclusions.