Here’s a trivia question: Name the 1892 box office flop panned by critics for lack of seriousness and for casting too many kids, one that is now a force of nature timed to occur yearly around the winter solstice.
The answer, of course, is The Nutcracker, and though many ballet fans might inwardly groan at the first of December, the Scrooges can’t deny that this classic ballet gave many of them their first exposure to the dance. A successful Nutcracker is as important to a contemporary ballet company as a successful Black Friday is to Macy’s.
Miami City Ballet’s production of the holiday favorite is no different. For 27 years, South Florida audiences have adored the company’s version. So why a new production, and why now?
According to MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez, “Our production was showing its age. Even the costumes and sets were looking ragged.”
Plus, the scale of the old production was off. MCB’s Nutcracker was established when Miami was a very different city with theaters much smaller than the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht Center, now one of the largest performing arts venues in the nation.
“Also, stage craft has advanced in the last ten to 12 years. You can create a very different magic now than what you could do 27 years ago,” she adds.
For the new production’s magic, Lopez relied on an artistic relationship she forged while still in New York — the husband-and-wife design powerhouse Ruben and Isabel Toledo. In previous collaborations, Lopez discovered the couple had a special knack for negotiating the difficult demands of honoring tradition while infusing freshness.
“Ruben and Isabel respect tradition, so they have really researched the original costumes by Barbara Karinska and the set design of Rouben Ter-Arutunian and have used these as their points of departure. They have examined the palette of our old Nutcracker and added their own touches — from the elegance of Isabel’s costuming to the quirkiness and out-of-scaledness of Ruben’s art,” Lopez says.
For an example of Isabel Toledo’s approach to design, think back to Michelle Obama’s knockout two-piece lemongrass outfit the first lady wore to the 2009 inauguration. For Toledo, the challenge of designing for dancers is that ballet is not so much an art object as it is an art action, where the costumes tell a silent story. “All of the design elements I used in Act I are later repeated and amplified in Act II,” Isabel Toledo says. “When Marie is dreaming of her future in Candyland, all of the visual clues from the Act I party scene are enhanced and transformed into the costumes for Act II. I love this kind of visual poetry, this kind of design transformation.”
Whimsical, at times cartoonish, and at others borderline goth, Ruben Toledo’s designs strike the eye like a visual tickle. For him, the Nutcracker project was not about contrasting the old with the new but about drawing juices from Balanchine’s perfectly formed fruit. “I wanted to paint a world that would make you want to enter into — a painting you can walk into and around,” Ruben Toledo muses. “I wanted to make the stage an installation that the dancers will want to inhabit. I hope the visual world created for this Nutcracker will help inspire the next chapter of Nutcrackers.”
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And what about the dancing? Will all of these changes alter the performance of the Balanchine classic? According to MCB principal dancer Jennifer Lauren, South Florida audiences will still see the classic choreography. However, the new sets and costumes might change the feelings the ballet inspires. “I do think the sets and costumes will spark a new idea of how the audience sees the show as a whole.”
For Lauren, the biggest change for the dancers with this new production is the live music accompanying each performance. When dancing to the Opus 1 orchestra, her “dancing becomes more spontaneous and more genuine.”
— Sean Erwin, Arburstmiami.com
Miami City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Friday, December 15, through Sunday, December 24, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $30 to $125 via miamicityballet.org.