“The Nutcracker” will return to the Wood River Valley this year, whisking audience members away to the Land of the Sweets and recounting the magical—and snow-filled—adventures of Clara.
Every other year, College of Southern Idaho and Hailey’s Footlight Dance Centre team up to bring the iconic ballet to the Wood River Valley with the help of Eugene Ballet, a professional dance company in Oregon.
This year’s show will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Wood River High School Performing Arts Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 8.
“This is a labor of love and volunteer efforts from both [CSI and Footlight] to give our local students the opportunity to dance alongside professionals,” said Hilarie Neely, director of the Footlight Dance Centre.
Every weekend, Neely has been rehearsing 54 local dancers in their roles as baby mice, bon-bons, dancing flowers and more.
“Starting with the audition process in September, the Eugene Ballet Company tried to get as many kids involved as possible and coach them through their parts,” she said. “The growth, as a teacher, has been very exciting to see.”
Neely said some of her students were initially nervous about dancing alongside professional ballerinas and danseurs—and in front of their friends and families—but weekly practice has helped them channel fear into focus and confidence.
“As the kids have polished up their parts, they’ve gotten to a place where muscle memory takes over, where it’s just the music guiding them, and their smiles have gotten bigger,” she said. “Of course, Tchaikovsky’s music is absolutely beautiful, and the ballet is a wonderful chance for young children to be exposed to the art.”
The classic story begins when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve and Clara’s beloved nutcracker, a gift from her godfather, stirs to life. After leading toy soldiers into battle against an army of giant mice and defeating the evil Mouse King, the Nutcracker turns into a handsome prince and accompanies Clara to a magical forest inhabited by the Sugarplum Fairy.
Clara and Prince Hans’ adventures through the thickly frosted Land of the Sweets and Snow Kingdom feature dances from candy canes, coffee from Arabia and hot chocolate from Spain. After performances from the gracious Mother Ginger and a string of beautiful flowers, Clara and Hans take off in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
Though the story is a happy one, its music—composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with libretto based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”—arose from tragic circumstances.
In 1890, Tchaikovsky was under immense pressure to deliver a ballet and opera score to Moscow’s Imperial Theatre, as commissioned by Director Ivan Vsevolozhsky. (The music would need to not only please and entertain the gruff Czar Alexander III, but also adhere to choreographer Marius Petipa’s strict tempo and musical guidelines.) When Tchaikovsky escaped to Rouen, France in 1891 in the hope of solving a bad case of writer’s block, he learned that his sister Sasha had died. The news was devastating—the two had been inseparable. But the composer found solace in Hoffman’s story, drawing close parallels between Clara and Sasha—and weaving childhood memories and long-ago Christmases spent with his sister into his music.
The result was a string of delectable melodies written in an ornamental Rococo style, often including the delicate, bell-like notes of the celesta as homage to Sasha’s spirit.
Though the original ballet’s premiere in 1892 was not a success, dance pioneer George Balanchine resurrected the ballet in 1954 in the U.S.—and ever since then, it’s enjoyed a spot among top American holiday traditions.
“It’s a Christmas story that everyone can relate to,” Neely said. “That time with family, the anticipation of opening gifts and the wonderment that goes along with holiday décor and traditions—those are what make it a classic.”
Eugene Ballet Company dancers starring in Sunday’s performance will be Sarah Kosterman as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Vivien Farrell as Clara and Koki Yamaguchi as Hans.