Americans have a compulsive fascination with ‘The Nutcracker’. Originally a Russian Imperial Ballet, it is now danced here in U.S. more than in any other country and has been an ever-present staple of pre-professional companies and schools, as well as well as flagship and regional companies everywhere. Among the most enduring have been those at New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, and Ballet West. The two oldest versions of the
ballet, at Ballet West and City Ballet, share similar roots. When William Christensen decided to present America’s home grown production for San Francisco Ballet in 1944 he turned to George Balanchine who had known the ballet from performances at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Later in 1954 George Balanchine would make his own esteemed version for City Ballet which is still in place today. It has become permanently embedded in the holiday season in New York much like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza or the performances of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.
San Francisco Ballet has seen four other productions since Christensen. They currently perform a version by SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, a very American looking version set in San Francisco with lots of recognizable local appeal. Utah’s Ballet West went on to inherit Christensen’s ‘Nutcracker’ when he moved to Salt Lake to build his new company. Decades later, they continue to perform it. It’s a very honest, uncomplicated rendering with exceptional details. For a first try it has proven amazingly durable.
In the mid-1980’s both Pacific Northwest Ballet and Joffrey Ballet established brilliant productions that have returned each season. Over the years they have been important fixed points in the legacies of both companies. The PNB version, darkly decorated with the extraordinary designs by Maurice Sendak, was retired last year. An imaginatively adapted version for film (Hyperion Pictures 1986) with exceptional cinematography remains as a record of that production. That beloved Stowell/Sendak production was replaced this season with a franchised version of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’. Peter Boal the company’s Artistic Director stated the change was primarily a financial decision based on years of declining ticket sales.
For 2016 Joffrey Ballet will retire its production for a replacement choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. With designs based on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair celebrating the Columbus Quadricentennial, the early signs hint at a profound lack of cultural awareness on the part of Wheeldon and those steering the production through its early stages. The current Joffrey production is remarkable for the contributions of both, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, who together developed a uniquely expressive American style of ballet. As founding partners, their final prized collaboration which opened in 1987 seems too important to abandon.
The question remains, how do companies build performance legacies when they seem determined to toss out exceptional productions that have helped build their successes. PNB will be embarking on making a new legacy with an already established production while Joffrey Ballet will be turning to the red hot Mr. Wheeldon for whatever his current dancemaking cachet has to offer. In both cases, the chances are good they will be losing more than they stand to gain, and that’s not a winning strategy.