WELCOME TO OREGON BALLET THEATRE’S PRODUCTION OF GEORGE BALANCHINE’S THE NUTCRACKER ®!
There is something about seeing through the eyes of a child that brings even the most world-weary adult into a blissful state—and renews that certain sense of wonder that children everywhere share. Experiencing The Nutcracker is one of the best opportunities we have to connect to that willingness to suspend belief that is a cherished part of the holidays.
Another cherished part of the holidays is of course the beautiful music of Tchaikovsky, so well known to us all. The uncanny way that the composer captures the outsize feelings of hope, excitement, fear, and triumph that are a part of every child’s journey is one reason we are so transported by this masterpiece. When we hear the trumpets sound the battle cry in Act I, or the swelling of the string section that comes in the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier in Act II — it connects us to the heart of the story in just the right way. Which is why OBT is so excited that this season we follow The Nutcracker with Swan Lake, perhaps the most beloved ballet of all time and again one of Tchaikovsky’s masterworks. Our new Swan Lake retains the traditions of a pristine classic while infusing the work with the theme that love, even if it begins in a fairytale, is its own magic — love transcends illusion. We hope you will join us on another unforgettable journey in ballet in February.
But for now, before you sit back and delight in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker — think about this: every year, Oregon Ballet Theatre lovingly prepares this wonderful holiday confection for you to share with the ones you love. It is without doubt one of our happiest traditions! And an integral part of creating this magic for as long as we have performed it is former OBT Principal Dancer and current Children’s Coach Gavin Larsen, who leaves us (and Portland!) at the end of this run. Gavin has groomed generations of children for their roles in the ballet and in doing so has passed along the lessons she learned when she herself was a child in the production with Mr. Balanchine’s own company, New York City Ballet. Gavin’s ability to communicate the essence of each child’s role is a big reason why our performances have been so highly acclaimed, and we will miss her tremendously. So please take an extra moment to appreciate just how wonderful the children of our school are in this performance, won’t you? And enjoy the chance to see the world through their young eyes!
Artistic Director, Oregon Ballet Theatre
It is Christmas Eve in Germany 150 years ago, and Doctor and Frau Stahlbaum, along with their children Marie and Fritz, are hosting an elegant holiday party. In a festive parlor with a splendid Christmas tree, they entertain their friends and relatives with games, dances, and gifts. At the stroke of eight, an owl suddenly flaps its wings over the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and the lights flicker and fail. The party is swept with a sense of wonder as Marie’s god- father, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeier, makes a dramatic entrance with his young nephew. They have brought with them life-sized danc- ing toys that they unveil to the delight of the assembled guests. Drosselmeier then presents Marie with a special gift: a Nutcracker. Marie proudly shows off her new toy until Fritz, in a jealous tantrum, seizes the doll and breaks it. Drosselmeier mends the Nutcracker with his handkerchief and gives the doll to Marie, who tucks it into a toy bed beneath the Christmas tree. After a final dance, which Marie shares with the nephew, the guests say goodnight and the family goes off to bed.
At midnight, Marie sneaks back to look for her Nutcracker. She soon falls asleep and, when she does, the room begins to change. Giant mice scurry through the shadows while the Christmas tree and the toys beneath it grow bigger and bigger. Under a now towering tree, the mice, led by their fierce King, do battle with the Nutcracker and
his army of toy soldiers. It seems the mice will be triumphant until, at the very last moment, Marie throws her slipper at the King, distracting him long enough for the Nutcracker to run him through with his sword and seize victory. Exhausted, Marie falls onto her bed and is magically transported to the Land of Snow. There, where snowflakes dance, she is reunited with the Nutcracker, now transformed into a handsome young Prince.
The Nutcracker Prince leads Marie on a journey to the Palace of the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy reigns. There, the Prince tells the court how Marie saved him in his battle with the Mouse King. As a reward, the Sugar Plum Fairy seats them both upon a special throne to enjoy the dancing of Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, and Tea from China. Candy Canes also perform for the two, along with Marzipan Shepherdesses, Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles, and the beautiful Dew Drop Fairy and her Flowers. As a final honor, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier dance a majestic pas de deux. Marie and the Nutcracker Prince thank the Sugar Plum Fairy for her grand entertainment and everyone in the Land of Sweets gathers to bid them farewell.
EACH HOLIDAY SEASON, the artistic success of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker by Oregon Ballet Theatre depends on the efforts and energies of dozens of people, from Sugar Plum Fairies to stagehands, Cavaliers to costumers, militarized mice to musicians. But there might be no one who’s played a more crucial role over the past several years than Gavin Larsen. Though she retired as an OBT principal dancer in the spring of 2010, her impact only has increased through her role as coach for the platoon of children cast in the beloved annual spectacle.
The use of real children for child characters is a key premise of Balanchine’s version of the oft-adapted “Nutcracker” tale, and it’s an especially potent element in America, where the piece is so thoroughly tied to the Christmas season, providing a vivid representation of seasonal wonder and transformation. For 2016, OBT has cast 144 students in at least one role in The Nutcracker. The students are divided into two casts, and some students will perform two or even three different roles through the course of the run. For the children’s coach, it all amounts to a complicated regimen of auditioning, teaching, rehearsing, scheduling, organizing, and guiding that Larsen not only has excelled at but relished, no matter how much repetition it involves.
“I’m never going to be sick of The Nutcracker,” she says. “I’m never going to get bored. I know every part so well that there are always so many details to look at. This ballet, I wear it: I’m inside of it and it’s inside of me.” But beyond this season, Larsen’s further adventures in the Stahlbaum Family home and the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy won’t be with OBT. The New York native, whose 18-year professional-dancing career took her throughout North America, will return to the East Coast to take a teaching position at the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. She says she’ll miss Portland after 13 years here but was lured away by the full-time faculty post.
Larsen admits she fell asleep the first time she saw Balanchine’s Nutcracker as a young child, in New York City Ballet’s storied version. Yet, “like every stereotypical ballerina,” she says, it got into her blood, especially once she enrolled in the School of American Ballet (New York City Ballet’s associate school) at age 11. She remembers being cast first as a baby mouse, and falling in love with the whole experience. She talks of “the seriousness of it, and the smell of it”—the canvas-leather- and-glue scent of new pointe shoes, the dyes in the costumes, the distinctive fragrance of rosin dust heated by stage lights. “It was a turning point that decided the path of my life, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” she recalls. “All I knew was this sense that the theater—not only the stage itself, but the wings, the halls, the costume shop, the dusty corners of backstage, the elevator, everything about it—was my world. Being coached as intensely as if we were preparing for starring roles, and then standing there on stage next to major professional dancers, watching them in the wings, how they pre- pared themselves, eavesdropping on their conversations, seeing them in between en- trances and exits—all of it was endlessly fascinating. It was hard, hard work, but it was a satisfying kind of work that rewarded in a million ways.”
Having performed numerous roles in the Balanchine Nutcracker and other versions throughout her career, Larsen began coaching, in collaboration with her predecessor, during her last year as a full-time dancer, and got further into the details when OBT took The Nutcrack- er and other works on a tour of South Korea shortly after she retired from performing. “That was a huge learning curve,” she recalls. The first task with the start of rehearsals just after Thanksgiving is getting everyone solid on the step and the counts. She’s a stickler for precision lines and sharp movement. “The feet should be daggers on the floor,” as the young dancer Colin Trummel recalls her instructions. Then there’s what she stresses isn’t acting but stagecraft: “How do you hold your body so that the audience sees your emotion?”
The truly essential lessons, though, aren’t about technique. “What I’m most proud of is getting the kids to realize that each one of them matters,” Larsen says. “I realized even as a child performer myself that we were integral to the whole. And that’s one of the things we try to instill—that feeling of responsibility.” Of the hundreds of young dancers Larsen has worked with, only a few will go on to dance professionally; not many will even move up the ranks from being an angel to a role in the Act I party scene. Yet Larsen can readily spot the most promising students. “It’s their focus,” she says. “You can see that they’re never distracted. When I’m working with someone else, they’re the ones who go in a corner and do the movement again and again by themselves.”
One such student is Annastasia Beller, who Larsen lauds as “a natural actress; she knows how to be dramatic without over-emoting.” At 16, Beller already has a decade of Nutcracker experience. “Sometimes it is really hard to balance ballet, school, and homework, not to mention all of the physical activity and how tired your body gets,” she says. “There are definitely times in the middle of the season where I wonder, why am I doing this again? But that all goes away once we get to the theater…I get this big goofy grin on my face, because I know this is exactly where I want to be.” Beller says Larsen taught her how to be dili- gent and efficient, not just with dance technique, but with anything she does. “No matter how tired or discouraged I got, she has been there with corrections or encouragement to get me where I want to be. I know now that nobody gets anywhere taking the easy path.”
Trummel’s path, on the other hand, was neither focused nor easy. Larsen recalls him initially as “sweet, but so hyperactive I didn’t know what to do with him.” But she’s gone from gritting her teeth every night when he played the mischievous young Fritz, to watch- ing him last year as a prince and “shedding tears of motherly pride over this kid who I’d thought a couple of years before that I’d never be able to put on stage. He’d developed a dignity, but never lost that childlike exuberance.”
Larsen’s own combination of diligence and exuberance surely will be missed by the entire OBT community, but likely most so by her young charges. “The thing that I will miss most is her coming into the green room after each group has danced, and saying ‘Great job everyone —but here are some notes before the finale,’” Beller says. “She is always there to assure us, but ready to give us more, and I am really going to miss that.”