By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Remember the first time you saw the Nutcracker Ballet? The excitement, the sighs, and that tiny flicker of envy, wishing you were a ballerina?
In the more than a century since the ballet’s premier performance, Dec. 18, 1892, at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, Nutcracker has become a beloved Christmas tradition, especially in North America.
In the Kansas City area, two institutions are offering performances of Nutcracker, the Ballet Conservatory of Independence and the Kansas City Ballet. Many young people study ballet, and auditions for Nutcracker and other performances are eagerly, and nervously, anticipated by students and professionals alike. A number of students who attend Catholic schools or are members of Catholic parishes will dance in performances of the Nutcracker Ballet this year. Four study ballet at the Ballet Conservatory and 14 study at the Kansas City Ballet School.
The story is the same wherever the ballet is performed, thanks to Marius Petipa, who choreographed the story to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music. The Nutcracker is based on the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a story written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman. In the original story, young Marie (Clara) Stahlbaum’s favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, comes to life and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her off to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. When the Russian Imperial Ballet Master Petipa decided to choreograph the story into a ballet, he and Tchaikovsky based it on an 1844 revision of the tale by French author Alexander Dumas.
Synopsis -The Party Scene
It is Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house, a grand house with a beautiful Christmas tree. The Stahlbaums are hosting their annual Christmas party, welcoming family and friends. The children, Clara, 7, -Olivia Lundquist, St. Mark’s Parish – Ballet Conservatory- and Fritz, 8, dance and play as they too welcome their friends, Hannah Bechtel, St. Peter’s – Kansas City Ballet School; Nolan Boone, St. Mark’s Parish -Ballet Conservatory. Also dancing from the Ballet Conservatory is Frances Villanueva, who attends Nativity of Mary Parish in Independence.
The festivities continue with music and dance as Drosselmeyer, the children’s godfather, arrives. Drosselmeyer, a skilled clock and toymaker, draws everyone’s attention as he presents two life-size dolls. The dolls take turns dancing, delighting all the guests.
The children have begun to open their Christmas gifts when Drosselmeyer presents his gifts to Clara and Fritz. He gives a wonderful drum to Fritz, and to Clara a beautiful Nutcracker that becomes the hit of the party. Fritz jealously grabs the Nutcracker from Clara, and immediately begins a game of catch with some other boys, promptly breaking the toy. Heartbroken, Clara watches in tears as Drosselmeyer quickly repairs the Nutcracker with a handkerchief he magically pulls from the air. His nephew offers Clara a makeshift bed under the tree for the Nutcracker.
The evening grows late, the guests depart and the Stahlbaum family goes to bed. Clara cannot sleep worrying about her Nutcracker and sneaks back to the tree to check on him. She falls asleep on the floor with the toy in her arms.
The dream, and the Fight Scene
The clock strikes midnight. Strange things begin to happen — Clara begins shrinking as the Christmas tree grows high above her; the toys around the tree come to life while the room fills with an army of mice- Olivia Rose, Visitation; Kia Hemphill, St. Thomas More – Kansas City Ballet School- led by the fierce Mouse King. The Nutcracker awakens and leads his army of toy soldiers- Isabella Valdivia, Visitation; Natalya Klepikow, St. Thomas More; Anna Mitchell, Notre Dame de Sion – Kansas City Ballet School- into battle with the mice. The Mouse King corners the Nutcracker and a one-on-one battle ensues. The Nutcracker appears to be no match for the Mouse King.
The Nutcracker and his army can go on no longer and are captured by the mice and their King. Clara makes a final desperate charge, throwing her slipper at the Mouse King and hitting him squarely on the head. The Mouse King drops lifelessly to the floor and the mice run away, carrying their leader’s body.
The Land of Snow
Clara falls onto the Nutcracker’s bed, over-whelmed by what had happened. Angels – Cecilia Hodes, Ailis Renvey and Erika Sesler, Visitation – Kansas City Ballet School- dance over her head and the bed turns into a magical floating sleigh. The Nutcracker is transformed into a human prince (who looks very much like Drosselmeyer’s nephew). He climbs into Clara’s sleigh and drives through a snowy forest where the snowflakes turn into dancing maidens. The snowflake maidens and their Snow Queen-Anna O’Rennick, St. Cyril’s – Ballet Conservatory-welcome Clara and the prince.
The Land of Sweets
The Prince escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Prince tells her about their daring battle with the army of mice and she is so impressed that she rewards them with a celebration of dances: The Spanish Dance; the Arabian Dance; the Russian Dance (Trepak [dance of the ribbon candy]) Audrey Calovich, Visitation – Kansas City Ballet School; The Chinese Dance; Mother Ginger and her children Audrey Carroll and Eleanor Grever- St. Peter’s; Sally Swinney- Mother Ginger extra, St. Elizabeth – Kansas City Ballet School- and the Mirliton Dance (dance of the peppermints) Molly Varney, Archbishop O’Hara High School – Kansas City Ballet School. Then, in the Waltz of Flowers, the Dewdrop -Anastasia Castle, Church of the Santa Fe – Ballet Conservatory- “waltzes with all the colors of the rainbow.” The flowers dance and as a finale, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier dance a Pas De Deux.
The Dream Ends
In the morning, Clara awakens from her dream and finds herself by the Christmas tree with her beloved Nutcracker.
After dancing professionally with the Finnish Opera Ballet in her native Finland, Ulla Ames moved to the United States, where she met Allen, whom she married. The couple opened a ballet studio in Utah. As a ballet instructor, Ames wanted to make the learning experience enjoyable. She worked with William Christenson, one of the original U.S. producers of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to create a version of the ballet with a predominately all-children, student cast. The couple relocated to Independence and opened the Ballet Conservatory a number of years ago. This Christmas will mark the 24th season Ballet Conservatory students have performed the Nutcracker.
Tatiana Dokoudovska, founder of the Kansas City Ballet Company and school, began her professional ballet career at the age 12, dancing in operettas and motion pictures. At the age of 15, while attending I’Ecole des Artes (Professional School), taught by Russian prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenska, she danced for the opera season in Monte Carlo, then as soloist with the Ballet Russe de l’Opera Comique de Paris, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1954, while dancing at Starlight Theater in Kansas City, she was offered the position as head of the Conservatory of Music’s Ballet department, which she accepted. In 1957, she founded the Kansas City Ballet, and served as artistic director for the premier performance at what is now the Lyric Theater. A few years later, she started the ballet school. Dokoudovska retired in 1989, and died in 2005.
While the leading roles in the Kansas City Ballet production of the Nutcracker are danced by professionals of the Kansas City Ballet Company, more than 200 ballet students perform in the production.
Auditions were in late September and now, for two months, dancers from both ballet schools have juggled practices and rehearsals, class work, homework, family and sleep.
Four Ballet Conservatory students took a break from practice one evening to talk about dancing in the Nutcracker. Anastasia Castle, 14, has studied at the Ballet Conservatory for six years. “My religion teacher told me about the Nutcracker when I was a little girl and I wanted to see it for myself, so much,” she recalled. “When my parents took me to see it, I was inspired by watching the dancers. I wanted to be one, too.” She enrolled at the Ballet Conservatory and found what her mother calls a “hidden talent. She caught on so quickly. I can’t dance, but she is amazing!” Anastasia has also danced and sung in the Christmas program at the Church of the Santa Fe.
In the Nutcracker, she portrays the Dew Drop, the fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers, waltzing with ribbons in all the colors of the rainbow. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s the last dance for Clara and I invite Clara and the Nutcracker Prince to dance with me.”
Homeschooling allows her a bit more leeway in her daily schedule than those who attend parish or public schools have. Anastasia plans to be homeschooled through high school. She also has interests in addition to ballet. Anastasia writes stories and plays guitar, “a little.” Her “family is tech savvy,” she said, and she is learning videography.
The Ballet Conservatory curriculum is modeled on the curriculum at the Royal Academy of Dance. Anastasia plans to take the dance exam to pass the intermediate level next year.
Is she considering ballet dancing professionally? No, she said, it can get too tense. She does think she would like to teach ballet though, at the Ballet Conservatory.
Clara is portrayed by Olivia Lundquist, 10, a fourth grader at Glendale Elementary School in Independence and a member of St. Mark’s parish. She has studied ballet for five years. This is the first time she has danced this role, and she confessed to being a little nervous, although not as nervous as when she auditioned for the part.
“I wanted to try my best in the audition,” Olivia remembered, “but I was nervous. When I got the part I was really excited. I’ve danced as a party guest and a lot of other parts in Nutcracker. I love to dance and Clara is a real special part.”
Several friends and family members are planning to attend at least one performance to watch her dance.
Although Olivia expects to dance through her life, she also enjoys soccer and playing outside with her friends. A friend is planning to open an art studio and Olivia looks forward to working at the studio on another of her loves — art.
Fellow St. Mark’s parishioner and Glendale Elementary School friend Nolan Boone, 9, has studied dance for two years. The third grader is a Cub Scout and likes Math, especially subtraction, but thought ballet sounded like fun and decided to take it. He is “pretty nervous” about his role as a boy in the party scene. “I’m just scared of that one false step,” Nolan said. Olivia shook her head. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
The Snow Queen is danced by Anna O’Rennick, 13, who attends Bingham Junior High School in Independence and is a member of St. Cyril’s Parish in Sugar Creek. When she was a little girl, her grandmother took her to a performance of the Nutcracker and Anna “fell in love with the prima ballerinas.” She began taking ballet when she was five years old. She has practice and rehearsals four days a week.
“The Snow Queen opens up Clara’s dream,” she said, “and the Nutcracker’s journey. It’s like the beginning of a fantasy that opens into the Land of Sweets.”
Auditioning for the role made her excited, “big time nervous and anxious,” she said. “I’ve danced in a lot of other roles in Nutcracker and I felt like it was my year to get this part. The Snow Queen is powerful and dancing her makes me feel very special.”
She’s accustomed to the nerves and the pins and needles, literally, holding her costumes together until they can be stitched. Anna has performed in a Willie Wonka musical; she dances in five other roles in Nutcracker, plays competitive soccer, studies piano and voice, and sings with Sugar Creek’s Young MAIster Singers and in the St. Cyril’s choir.
Anna has two long term goals in mind: She wants to be a pediatrician whom children love and to have a career in musical dance theater on Broadway.
Three Kansas City Ballet school students gathered one afternoon to talk about dancing in the Nutcracker. Hannah Bechtel, 10, portrays a boy in the party scene at the ballet’s beginning. “Ballet is a way to express yourself,” she said. “So much of dance is focus — you feel like you can make the music flow with your arms.”
Hannah, a student at St. Peter’s, began taking ballet at age 2. So did her friend, Olivia Rose, who dances as a mouse in the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers in Clara’s dream. “The mouse role is fun to dance, everyone says. I was a toy soldier last year so I get to fight what I played last year,” Olivia, who attends Visitation School, said.
“This is a real treat,” she added. “A lot of my school friends do dance, like jazz and tap, but they don’t get to do Nutcracker. It’s a lot of work, but our teachers help us get stronger as we dance.”
Audrey Calovich, an eighth grader at Visitation, dances the Trepak (Russian) Dance, the dance of the ribbon candy. She danced it in the Nutcracker production last year and was thrilled to do it again. “I think it’s the best dance in the show,” she said.
Audrey has taken ballet lessons for 11 years and considers it a “real privilege” and “inspiring” to dance with the Kansas City Ballet Company.
In the Trepak, four girls dance with a male Ballet Company dancer, she said. They are dressed like Russian dolls, and dance with streamers representing ribbon candy.
Hannah happily dances the role of a boy. “My mom has been practicing on my hair,” she said, tossing her almost waist length hair. “We’ll get it all bundled up. And I’m small so I get picked up by other dancers a few times. That’s fun!”
All three girls talked excitedly about the dressing rooms, the lighting and the layout of the stage in the new Kauffman Performing Arts Center.
The dancers in both productions spend hours every day practicing for the performances, as well as school work, homework, other activities including piano lessons and family gatherings, and a little sleep. But Nutcracker is worth it to them.
Whatever the role, whatever the dance, performing in the Nutcracker Ballet is a dream come true for many girls and boys, and kindles the spark of other dreams.
The Nutcracker, presented by Ballet Conservatory, will be performed at 3 p.m., Dec. 10, at the Pavilion at John Knox Village, 520 NW Murray Road, Lee’s Summit. For tickets and additional information, visit www.BalletConservatory.net.
The Kansas City Ballet’s production of Nutcracker closes Dec. 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City. For more information about purchasing tickets, performance times, seating options and parking visit www.kcballet.org.