Tinsel and stardust, dancing fairies and clever mice, memorable music: all adding up to a massive annual Yuletide fundraiser for art in New Orleans……… of course, it’s The Nutcracker.
Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet – the tale of a young girl who receives a nutcracker as a present and has a fantastic dream – was not considered a major work of the Russian composer. The first American full production of the ballet was in 1944 in San Francisco. New choreography by George Balanchine premiered in New York in 1954. Since then, the ballet has become a Christmas staple: the tiniest dancers debut as mice, the proud parents buy tickets, and dance companies fund a year of grueling barre work with a few nights of soaring magic.
New Orleans had an early exposure to the ballet. According to the Times-Picayune, on February 18, 1922, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and her troupe performed at the Lafayette Theatre (today’s Civic Theatre.) One selection on the program was “’Snowflakes: A Ballet in One Act’ from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite,” with Pavlova partnered by Laurent Novikoff.
The first Nutcracker with local performers was on January 12, 1930, by residents of the Jewish Children’s Home – an orphanage located where the Jewish Community Center is now. “Choruses, with solo and group dances interpreting the story will be presented by more than 100 boys and girls,” the New Orleans Item reported. Later that year, a short segment of the Nutcracker was part of a dance revue by students of Musette Farrish, on November 28, 1930, according to The New Orleans States.
All that was lacking to bring today’s local Nutcracker explosion was a dance company, or rather, dance companies. New Orleans can thank Anna Pavlova for that, too. In a 1914 visit, the Russian ballerina gained an admirer, the 10-year-old Lelia Haller.
Haller would be the spark that ignited the ballet inspiration that still sweeps the city. She danced with the Paris Opera Ballet, gained fame as a performer and finally opened her ballet school in New Orleans, along with Ballet Louisiane – a ballet company. Her rigorous training produced a bumper crop of local dancers. In Harold George Scott’s biography, “Lelia: The Compleat Ballerina,” Haler’s pupils include dancers whose own pupils and their descendants fill today’s local studios. Joseph, Maria and Gwen Delle Giacobbe, Rebecca Webb Lentz, Harvey Hysell, and a host of others carried on the ballet tradition of the city to the present.
This year’s Nutcracker season has five different New Orleans productions – and there are others throughout the state. All of them will include classic bits of the ballet, but, there will be some surprises:
The Jefferson Ballet Theater’s production features the inventive choreography of Kenneth Beck. “The six dolls will be presented to Clara’s friends, and when they come alive in the second act, the performers’ similar costumes will reflect different nationalities and dances.”
Nikki Hefke of the New Orleans School of Ballet promises some local flavor, including a “March of the Pelicans,” “Who Dats” and even a “Mardi Gras Strut.”
Nutcracker 2019 schedule (in order of appearance)
Ballet Louisiane, Leila Haller Ballet Classique
Fri., 12/13, 7:30 p.m., Sat., 12/14, 2:30 p.m. Roussel Hall, Loyola University, 6363 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans Ballet Theatre Schramel Conservatory of Dance
Sat., 12/14, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Sun., 12/15, 2 p.m.; Sat., 12/21, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sun., 12/22, 2 p.m. Orpheum Theatre, 129 Roosevelt Way
New Orleans School of Ballet
Fri., 12/20, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 12/21, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 12/22, 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. The Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., New Orleans
Jefferson Performing Arts Society/Jefferson Ballet Theater Myra Mier School of Ballet
Sat., 12/21, 2 p.m.; Sun., 12/22, 2 p.m. Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Highway, Metairie
Delta Festival Ballet, Giacobbe Academy of Dance
38th Nutcracker, with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Sat., 12/21, 7:00 p.m.; Sun, 12/22, 2 p.m. Mahalia Jackson Theatre, 1419 Basin St., New Orleans
The Moscow Ballet
The Great Russian Nutcracker. Dec. 27, Saenger Theatre