Putting a special touch on a holiday staple
Touring company performing with Spokane Symphony strives to make well-known ballet memorable each time
It’s become as reliable a tradition as any: Every year around Christmas, like clockwork, P.I. Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “The Nutcracker” is performed all over the world. The State Street Ballet, which is based in Santa Barbara, Calif., has toured internationally with its version of the holiday favorite, and next week marks its third consecutive year performing with the Spokane Symphony.
We spoke with three people who are involved in the Symphony’s upcoming production about their personal relationships with “The Nutcracker” and why it remains important as a Christmas tradition.
Rodney Gustafson, co-founder and artistic director of the State Street Ballet and choreographer of their version of “The Nutcracker”
SR: How many years have you been doing this particular production?
Gustafson: We started doing it about eight years ago .
SR: Why did you choose “The Nutcracker”?
Gustafson: There’ve been many, many different versions done to the Tchaikovsky music, and some of them I find to be quite lethargic and boring. So when I did mine, I set out to create a version that had a lot of spontaneity and a lot of humor. … As far as the storyline, it’s a traditional version.
SR: What is it about your particular production that makes it unique?
Gustafson: Well, for instance, the party scene: It can be very, very boring, just people standing around onstage. So as people enter the party, I gave each family and their children distinct characteristics – one family is the snooty family, and an arrogant family, and one family who are very spacey and disheveled, and one family just won’t stop talking. … I tried to develop their characters down to the very last person. I always tell them, “It doesn’t matter if you are in the back upstage right corner; you are just as important as that person downstage center.” And I really believe that.
Peggy Goodner Tan, rehearsal mistress for “The Nutcracker”
SR: What is your involvement with the production?
Tan: I rehearse the local cast of children. … There are 75 children, not onstage every time, but between the full cast of about 60 and the alternates that step in if someone’s sick and the understudies, who are guaranteed at least one show.
SR: How long have you been working on “The Nutcracker” with the Symphony?
Tan: I’ve been doing it off and on for about 34 years.
SR: What is the audition and rehearsal process like?
Tan: The audition is open to any Spokane-area ballet student who wants to audition. And it is an audition – we don’t take every child that walks in the door. We only take the select few that can really cut the mustard. … Oftentimes we have 10 to 12 ballet schools represented in one cast, and the standards are not the same from school to school. My job is to pull them all together and rehearse them and make them look like they’re part of, in this case, the State Street Ballet, that they’re seamless.
SR: What do you hope the dancers take away from their experience?
Tan: I think it’s an experience that will come back to them when they’re older and more mature, and they think back and realize that they did a full run of shows with a full symphony orchestra and a full ballet company. I think some of the dancers are almost too young to fully understand this wonderful opportunity they’re getting. … They will definitely come away with a performance high. It’s something they’ll look back on their entire life.
Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Fox Theater
SR: How long have you been with the Spokane Symphony?
Nienhouse: It’s my ninth year here. But in terms of my career working with orchestras, I’ve seen 21 different productions of “The Nutcracker.”
SR: Would you say, then, that you’ve seen “The Nutcracker” every year for the past couple of decades?
Nienhouse: I would. And often I’ve seen it three or four times a year, too.
SR: Since you’ve seen your fair share of “Nutcracker” productions, what would you say is unique about the State Street interpretation?
Nienhouse: The Fox Theater is such an intimate, beautiful space, and their sets almost feel like they were made for our space because they also perform at a historic theater in California. There’s this beauty, there’s intimacy, but the fact that there’s live music accompanying the dancers is really, really very special. … We have a wonderful dance community here in terms of studios for students, and we hear over and over again from the companies that come in how much they respect the work done by the ballet teachers here and how wonderful the students are here. So Spokane’s got something special.
SR: Why do you think “The Nutcracker” has endured as long as it has?
Tan: I would start with the music. Tchaikovsky wrote beautiful music for three full-length ballets – “Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” – and each one is beautiful and completely different from the other. … This is a very beautiful ballet, and the music is so rich and endearing. Everybody can recognize the tunes from “The Nutcracker.”
Nienhouse: First of all, the music is wonderful. Second of all, it’s a wonderful story. … I think the fact that the dances are international, there are so many different things about the “Nutcracker” ballet where one thing might appeal to one person and another thing might appeal to another.
Gustafson: It is the one ballet that almost everybody in their lifetime will see, either as a child, as an adult or when you take your children. … It’s one of the most important ballets that’s ever been done because of that fact. It introduces people to dance.