On the 130th anniversary of its premiere, “The Nutcracker” still has bite.
“The beautiful thing about ‘The Nutcracker’ is it’s public domain, so you can take it and do your own version of it,” said Hui Cha Poos, founder of RACE Dance Collective and creator of its signature yuletide show, “RACE’s Hip Hop Nutcracker.”
“Obviously, after 130 years, it’s a consistent, persistent fan favorite.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the ballet premiered in 1892 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Powered by Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s now legendary score and adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” it wasn’t initially a success.
Oklahoma dance icon Maria Tallchief helped make “The Nutcracker” an American yuletide favorite in the 1950s, and since, it has become particularly popular in the Oklahoma City area, where fans can partake of multiple productions each year.
Here are five shows spotlighting the music and dance of “The Nutcracker” in the OKC metro area this season:
1. The classic version: Oklahoma City Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’
When and where: Dec. 10-18, Civic Center Music Hall.
Under new Artistic Director Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye, Oklahoma City Ballet will continue with its classic version of the holiday favorite, with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and Canterbury Voices returning to perform Tchaikovsky’s treasured score live.
“‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t really catch ground until George Balanchine made his on the New York City Ballet — and that was a total hit. That was really the beginning of … ‘The Nutcracker’ around the holiday season, around family, around tradition,” Jolicoeur-Nye told The Oklahoman. “While there have been as many interpretations of ‘The Nutcracker’ as there have been performances, there’s really a familiarity and a sense of coming home each year when a company gets to present ‘The Nutcracker’ to the community.”
When Balanchine’s version of the then-obscure ballet premiered in 1954, it was Tallchief — the Osage prima ballerina considered the most famous of Oklahoma’s Five Moons who rose to the top of the ballet world in the 20th century — who helped turn “The Nutcracker” into an annual Christmas favorite with her plum performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In 1963, OKC Ballet opened as Oklahoma City Civic Ballet under the artistic direction of another of the Five Moons, Yvonne Chouteau, and Miguel Terekhov. The company performed that December “The Nutcracker” with Tallchief reprising her magical role, setting the stage for the holiday ballet to become a staple for the organization.
“The sets and costumes will be familiar, but the choreography will be all different. The storyline and the tradition will remain largely the same; it will just be a different interpretation,” Jolicoeur-Nye said.
Although it will follow the familiar fairy tale of a girl who embarks on a fantastical adventure after she is gifted a nutcracker for Christmas, Jolicoeur-Nye said this year’s production will move away from the cultural stereotypes typically included in the second act.
Plus, OKC Ballet is offering its first sensory-friendly performance with its 6 p.m. Dec. 15 show, and dance devotees can enjoy tasty treats, a special performance and a visit with Santa at the annual Nutcracker Tea from 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 17 in the Civic Center’s Meinders Hall of Mirrors.
2. The contemporary version: ‘RACE’s Hip Hop Nutcracker’
When and where: Dec. 2-3 and 10-11, Oklahoma City Community College’s Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater.
RACE Dance Collective — a professional OKC hip-hop, contemporary and jazz dance company — is bringing back its original reimagining of the seasonal favorite for its 10th anniversary production. For the first time, the show is expanding to six performances over two weekends.
“It’s indescribable to see the legacy that the show has started to bring about,” said Poos, who directs RACE Dance Academy. “We have a few alumni who are now leads in the show who came in as freshmen in high school.”
Each year, RACE Dance members spend weeks working with local public school students who then perform in the yuletide production. This year, teens from six local high schools and two middle schools are performing in “RACE’s Hip Hop Nutcracker,” and all of them will receive new shoes to wear in the show and then keep.
Also new this year, the show schedule includes two free Spanish-language performances.
Poos’ version of “The Nutcracker” follows Carlos, the teenage son of a single mother, as he imagines what it would be like to have a father and embarks on a journey of self-discovery featuring magic dolls, battling robots and Snowfly fairies.
“Since the majority of the kids that are in the show are coming from Spanish-speaking families, we wanted to honor that by having two Spanish-speaking shows,” Poos said.
3. The local flavor: ‘The Oklahoma Nutcracker’
When and where: Dec. 17-18, Nancy O’Brian Center for the Performing Arts in Norman.
Since 2002, the Norman Ballet Company has presented this local family favorite, which intertwines Oklahoma history and themes of nature with the traditional storyline and musical score of the original “The Nutcracker.”
Set on Christmas Eve in 1907 at OKC’s Overholser Mansion, “The Oklahoma Nutcracker” includes the Sand Plum Fairy, a rose rock throne, the Oklahoma Prairie and more Sooner State references.
The 20th anniversary production will feature Emilie Gerrity and Chun Wai Chan, guest artists from the New York City Ballet.
4. The touring option: ‘World Ballet Series: Nutcracker’
When and where: Dec. 10, Rose State College Hudiburg Chevrolet Center in Midwest City.
A multinational touring cast of 50 professional ballet dancers will perform Petipa’s classic choreography to Tchaikovsky’s timeless score. The show will feature more than 150 hand-sewn costumes and hand-crafted sets.
5. The concert: ‘The Pan American Nutcracker Suite’
When and where: Nov. 25-26, UCO Jazz Lab in Edmond.
Latin Grammy winner Joe McCarthy and the New York Afro Alliance Big Band will present in concert a world premiere reinvention of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” featuring the Oklahoma City Jazz Orchestra.
Co-arranged by University of Central Oklahoma graduate Vince Norman, the piece is inspired by an array of musical stylings, from Duke Ellington to traditional Chinese drumming.
“I did an enormous amount of study and preparation. … My job was to honor Tchaikovsky, but also make the music true to a certain sound I was hearing,” McCarthy said in an email.
“We drew on influences from all over the world including Venezuela, traditional Chinese dance and New Orleans style. We’re able to transport people to a different place.”