Tuesday, December 24, 2019

This Day in Dance History (First Full U.S. Performance of ‘Nutcracker’)

Dec. 24, 1944—More than a half century after Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky watched in dismay as a troubled production of his The Nutcracker opened in St. Petersburg, Russia, the ballet was performed for the first time in its entirety in ration-restricted, wartime America, paving the way to its current status as a holiday perennial.

If the Russian composer had to contend with a replacement choreographer, a clumsy battle scene, lackluster costumes, the lack of an Act I ballerina, and an overweight Sugar Plum Fairy, Willam Christensen of the San Francisco Ballet had to deal with something more immediate, even existential, at the War Memorial Opera House: With World War II raging overseas, he had to concoct his production virtually from scratch. 

Here’s how Christensen dealt with these problems, according to a recent blog post from the San Francisco Ballet:

*No readily available score: Christensen had to write to the Library of Congress to obtain it.

*No record of the original choreography: Though The Nutcracker had been performed in Russia after its 1892 premiere, Christensen had to come up with his own version. He had been inspired to try his hand at the piece by two members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo company who had come to San Francisco with an abridged version of the Tchaikovsky work, ballet master George Balanchine and principal dancer Alexandra “Choura” Danilova. But, as Danilova gamely reenacted what she recalled from playing, “Mr. B” stopped her: “No, no, Choura, don't show him the steps. Let him create his own choreography." Christensen ended up doing just that.
*Not enough slippers: With wartime rationing in place, pointe shoes were obtained by asking retirees for unused “shoe stamps” that could be redeemed.

*Not enough costumes: With only $1,000 available, Christensen bought fabric for 143 costumes. The company dancers doubled as seamstresses—standing in long lines to buy the 10 yards each allowed by rationing, then sewing them themselves. Soldiers’ uniforms were fashioned out of a red velvet curtain salvaged from the demolished Cort Theater. (The material from that was so abundant that it lasted with the company for 10 years, making the $10 expenditure a real steal.)

*Not enough male dancers: Virtually every able-bodied male of age was in the service, including Christensen’s brother Lew (whose grim duty in Europe was to collect the bodies of the fallen). With the male component of the San Francisco Ballet depleted, Christensen resorted to perhaps his most unusual stratagem of all: “He went around to football teams in high schools and conscripted anybody that liked to be with girls,” Joan Vickers, who danced the role of a snowflake in the production, recalled years later. He went one step further, even: taking on one of the roles himself.

The tense conditions of the time were all too apparent not only during its premiere on Christmas Eve, but on its final production at the War Memorial Opera House two days later, The building was under a blackout order, with air raid wardens sitting in the audience, ready to blow their whistles in case of an emergency.

The association of Balanchine and Christensen—who are generally regarded as the most influential ballet masters on the East and West Coasts, respectively—would continue for decades. Christensen, by now artistic director emeritus of the San Francisco Ballet, would take the helm again at the organization he founded in 1984 when his brother Lew died and Lew’s replacement was dismissed. With a new season approaching, Christensen stepped in to rehearse Nutcracker and save the company. 

Thirty-five years after playing the role of The Prince in Russia, Balanchine put his indelible fingerprint on Nutcracker with the New York City Ballet. “Mr. B’s” artistic choices—including changing a few characters and spending $25,000 on a tree—helped turn the production into a holiday classic. 

With a marvelous score (perhaps the only acclaimed aspect of the original 1892 performance in St. Petersburg) and the initial experience it provides stage-struck youngsters, Nutcracker has become a staple of ballet companies nationwide. 

(The image accompanying this post shows Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in a 1977 telecast of Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet.)

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