In the face of the undeniable fact that year after year, town after town around the world thrills to the spectacle of a twinkling Christmas tree on growth hormones and a flurry of snow at the end of Act I that would cause Telluriders to call in sick in the morning, it is hard to believe “The Nutcracker” first opened under a cloud in 1892 at St. Petersburg Maryinsky Theatre.
Start with the fact the ballet’s original choreographer, Marius Petipa, had fallen ill, so the work had to be finished by his assistant. (For trivia buffs and crossword puzzle junkies, the dude’s name was Leon Ivanov.)
To make matters worse, when composer Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music, he was still mourning the recent death of his sister. That is why the adagio in Act II is similar to a prayer from the Russian Orthodox funeral service.
The real bummer, however, was the lukewarm response the ballet received from audiences and critics alike: used to getting their jollies by watching adult performers exchange long glance looks and back-bending kisses, they yawned when confronted by the chaste tale of a young teen’s erotic awakening. Couldn’t Clara have at least kissed a frog?
Sweet revenge came years later thanks to the brilliance of another Russian in tights. In George Balanchine’s 1954 adaptation, “The Nutcracker” became the world’s most popular ballet, a Christmas staple, Handel’s “Messiah” in toe shoes.
It was “The Nutcracker” that brought ballet from the exclusive domain of a rich aristocracy to high school auditoriums such as The Palm, where this weekend the Telluride Dance Academy presents its production, choreographed by prima ballerina Valerie Madonia.
Valerie danced in “The Nutcracker” when she was a girl with the National Ballet of Canada. Years later, she guest-starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy in regional theatres around the country.
“I have to say, the role is one tough nut to crack, quite possibly the most difficult part I have ever been asked to perform.”
Hear more by tuning into Valerie’s podcast, which includes her personal history with “The Nutcracker” and in-depth comments about this year’s illustrious cast and crew in Telluride.