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'A full-length ballet that makes sense'
How Columbia City Ballet keeps 'The Nutcracker' alive
"Nutcracker" romance dance.

It’s a safe bet that not too many young people today know what a nutcracker is (it’s a simple mechanical device for cracking the shells of nuts, to get to the meat inside, and not the sort of food–processing tool everybody has lying around).

The Nutcracker, therefore, is the most famous (more than 100 years and counting) holiday–themed ballet taking its name from an arcane kitchen device.

But it’s not called The Cheese Grater, because Russian composer Pytor Iilych Tchaikovsky’s ballet uses an old–school nutcracker – shaped like a man in a red soldier’s uniform, with the gaping mouth used for shell–cracking – as a central character.

The Columbia City Ballet returns to the Savannah Civic Center Saturday for its annual large–scale performance of The Nutcracker, with a cast of more than 90, including all 35–plus members of the professional company.

The production includes about 40 local dancers, some of them in major roles. William Starrett, longtime artistic director of the 49–year–old dance organization, held auditions in August, and has dispatched his ballet master to Savannah nearly every weekend since, to oversee rehearsals.

Local input, he says, plays an important part in bring the stage fantasy that is The Nutcracker into an area.

“I really try to be ensconced in the community, and not just ride in and ride off into the sunset,” he explains. “I’ve been committed to Savannah and the Savannah Nutcracker for more than a decade now.”

Savannah is part of the Columbia City Ballet’s six–city Nutcracker tour. The company has been telling the tale of little Clara and her Christmas dreams since 1978, and as with many dance companies, it’s a full–scale festive extravaganza that’s a necessary part of every season (i.e. it makes money).

So ... here come the soldiers, and the dancing rats, and Clara and Drosselmeyer and the Spanish dancers and the Flowers and the Sugar Plum Fairy ... and that snappily–dressed little wooden guy who cracks the nuts.

When the holidays loom, is there a ‘Here we go again’ factor? In other words, ‘Oh God, it’s time to do The Nutcracker again.’

William Starrett: It’s more like “We get to do The Nutcracker again.” The Nutcracker is a great ballet that sort of keeps the company on its standard. Because we do it every year, and we try to top ourselves every year, it really keeps us classically sound.

What do you mean, it keeps you on your standard? Is it particularly difficult?

William Starrett: Yes. Because not only are we trying to be as good as we were last year, we’ve got to try to be better than we were last year. It keeps evolving every year, so you try to top yourself.

I change The Nutcracker a little bit every year, so it keeps it fresh for me. To be honest, I get to see how some of the dancers are building and growing, and how I can kind of stretch and mold them.

Dancers get their big break at Nutcracker time; it’s a big time to be able to prove themselves. I do a lot of alternating between the cities, so dancers get to surprise me and try different dances that maybe they wouldn’t be considered for at other times.

So the dancers really look forward to this?

William Starrett: Yeah, because it’s so challenging. The classics are so hard. We just came off of doing Dracula, which is very sexy and very contemporary. So this is a lot harder than Dracula, in terms of technique. You can’t sort of bite someone in the neck and move a hip, and shake your hair. You’ve got to really put out.

I always thought the goal of creative people was to find something new and work on it. You’re saying The Nutcracker, after 31 consecutive years, doesn’t get old for you?

William Starrett: You could say that, but it’s kind of like “This is what we do.” And artistically, you’ve got to dig deeper to find more creativity. It’d be like Dolly Parton saying “I’m not going to complain about being famous. I’ve worked my whole life to be well–known.” You work your whole life to do six–city tours, and get to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, and get to dance in the snow ....

What are the challenges in turning such a well–known story into fresh dance?

William Starrett: The challenges, to me, are keeping it fresh and keeping it making sense. What I don’t like is, a lot of ballet companies have a big collage of divertissements, that are disjointed and doesn’t really tell a story. I really try not to do that.

Mine is really like a full–length ballet that makes sense. So the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, in Act One, are Clara’s older sister and the lead cadet. So she’s dreaming of one day being like her older sister, to get to dance with the handsome prince. It all coordinates with her dream. It’s all very psychosomatic.

I did something a little different this year – I tried to make a reason that Clara’s brother broke her nutcracker at the party. Before the party, nobody knows, but Fritz sneaks down and he’s playing with the sword; he opened up his present early, and Clara caught him, and they’re fighting over the sword. She breaks it.

Just then, the maids are chasing a mouse in the parlor. Fritz grabs the mouse and chases Clara with it. So it kind of makes sense why suddenly there’s rats that come in her dream. I tried to connect the whole story, and the whole dream, so it makes sense.

There are other things, too, so it all makes sense. So it’s a full–length ballet and not just a bunch of divertissement thrown together.

Are you free to make changes in the story? Or is there some sort of Nutcracker Society that says “No, you can’t do that”?

William Starrett: That is a really good question. The truth is that it’s one of the three most famous classics that Tchaikovsky created, with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Now, those absolutely have very little leeway. You can’t change anything.

But The Nutcracker, because it’s done every year, uses as the standard the original Ballets Russe choreography. From there, you have a lot of leeway within the divertissement of the Land of the Sweets. In Act One, you have a lot of freedom.

In the Snow Scene, you don’t have so much freedom because it’s a classic. I do the basic Ballets Russe classic, but I change it in terms of math, depending on how many girls I have. And I’ve brought men into the Snow Scene. I’m one of three ballet companies in the world that have men in their Snow Scene. I feel that the music is so dynamic, and that snow isn’t gender–specific. The men can lift the girls, and throw the girls, and then you have a greater dimension of snow falling, and going up in the air, and it reflects the music more.

You have freedom in the Russian dances, but when you get to the Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Sugar Plum Cavalier, you do not so much. You stick to the classic Ballets Russe; that’s the standard. And you can’t change the Sugar Plum Fairy solo at all.

You just have a little bit of play, in terms of interpretation, because it evolves every year.

Columbia City Ballet: ‘The Nutcracker’

Where: Savannah Civic Center (Johnny Mercer Theatre), 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28

Tickets: $20–$42


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