NUTCRACKER! Magic of Christmas Ballet annually tours the US and Canada performing in the top twenty major markets including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Washington D.C., Houston and over 140 more North American cities. Where did it all begin?
A meeting that would start it all
The Moscow Ballet story begins in 1979 when Bolshoi Ballet principals Alexander Godunov and Leonid and Valentina Kozlov met producer Akiva Talmi, son of Ukrainian immigrants and graduate of The Juilliard School. Talmi produced two US tours with the Bolshoi stars: “Godunov and Stars'' and “Kozlov’s from Bolshoi to Broadway,” and went on to produce the renowned American Ballet Theater Prima Ballerina Cynthia Gregory’s “Celebration Tour,” which was a benefit for the “Just Say No” campaign chaired by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan. He also produced the PBS special, “From the Top,” featuring NYC Ballet star Violet Verdi and violinist Itzhak Perlman. This production was noted as doing, “an excellent job of presenting the subtle and intangible benefits of learning through and about the arts,” by David Rockefeller, Jr., a theme that runs through the Talmi’s subsequent years of touring. Additionally, Talmi later introduced Valentina Kozlov at the Kennedy Center revival of “On Your Toes,” a production directed by George Balenchi as part of the famous “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” tour. He would also go on to produce one of the first breakdancing tours in North America during the 1980’s, demonstrating a dedication to the classic art of dance as well as an enthusiasm for embracing new art forms as they emerged.
As Talmi produced tours, his future partner Mary Giannone, a Juilliard trained choreographer and assistant to modern dance legend Jose Limon, was among a select group of emerging ballet artists chosen by director Mikhail Baryshnikov to choreograph the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 for American Ballet Theatre II, which was also funded by Rockefeller. Some of the talented artists also selected include James Kudelka, who became the Artistic Director for the National Ballet of Canada and is now serving as the National Ballet's artist in residence; and Dennis Spaight, who danced with the Irish National Ballet, Bejart’s Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and was Oregon Ballet Theatre’s associate director and resident choreographer. Mary was also chosen to be a guest choreographer at Jacob’s Pillow, one of the most prestigious dance companies in North America, that showcases all forms of dance, both classical and modern. In the late 1970’s, Akiva Talmi and Mary Giannone were poised to start four decades of producing and touring Russian ballet across North America.
The lifting of the Iron Curtain and a renewed celebration of the arts
In the 1980’s artistic life in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev flourished with his encouragement of freedom and reform. This included “Glasnost,” the policy calling for increased artistic openness, and “Perestroika,” a political movement for reforming government institutions.
It was during this time that Moscow Ballet founder, Akiva Talmi, traveled several times to Moscow, creating the annual “International Glasnost Festivals,” which toured the best ballerinas and dancers, including Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Stanislavsky Ballet; Tatiana Chernobrovkina and partner Alexei Malykin of the Bolshoi Ballet; Jana Kurova, Prima Ballerina of the Czechoslovakian National Ballet in Prague and winner of 6 International Ballet Competition gold medals; Svetlana Smirnova and Vadim Bondar of the Russian Perm School; Katharine Wolf and Zoltan Nagy of the Hungarian National Ballet; and Kirov Ballet Artistic Director Emeritus Oleg Vinogradov, who hosted Talmi at the Kirov (now the Marinsky) and offered Principal Artists Margarita Kullik and Vladimir Kim for Talmi’s Glasnost Tour. Vinogradov was invited as Artist in Residence at Yale University and was presented with Akiva Talmi at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in 2012.
During one of the Moscow visits, Talmi met Stanislov Vlasov, former Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer and partner to Lilia Sabitova, People’s Artist of Russia. Together they created one of the first independent and internationally touring Soviet ballet companies, naming it “Moscow Ballet.” The company had a permanent residency at the Moscow State Academic Children’s Theater (aka Natalia Sats Theater). Talmi was fascinated by the pioneering work of Natalia Sats, specifically her unique way of reaching and engaging with young audiences. She was also innovative in the way she derived her inspiration from the Greek god Pan, who envisioned all art originating in nature.
She staged Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, even putting a Blue Bird of Happiness statue on the roof of the theatre and constructing a large aviary inside the building, encouraging children to observe how the birds lived harmoniously among each other. The company was invited by Taiwan’s President Lee to perform in Taipei, and soon after came the annual North American tours. In the early nineties, Vlasov created the Great Russian Nutcracker’s “Land of Peace and Harmony” and the “Dove of Peace” role which are both exclusive to Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker. The role, the animal puppetry and birds pay homage to Sats’ ideals.
The “Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker” becomes a North American tradition
As the company grew, a significant repertory was added to the annual North American tours including Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Carmen. Moscow Ballet includes artists from the great Russian Ballet and Theaters such as Perm from where superstars Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrichenko trained; National Ballet of Ukraine in Kyiv from where stars Iryna Borysova and Oleksandr Skulkin hail; and Kazan National Opera and Ballet’s Principal Ballerina Alexandra Elagina, who was described as “brimful with feeling” by New York Times Chief Dance Critic Alastair Macaulay.
Moscow Ballet’s acclaimed Great Russian Nutcracker became a holiday tradition in households across North America, and was enjoyed by several prominent figures, including former first family Barack and Michelle Obama, in a memory she retells in her 2018 best-selling memoir Becoming:
“It was nearly Christmas, and Sasha was among a group of local children selected to join the Moscow Ballet for two performances of The [Great Russian] Nutcracker, both happening on the same day as the vigil in Newtown. Barack managed to slip into a back row and watch the dress rehearsal before leaving for Connecticut. I went to the evening show.
The ballet was as beautiful and otherworldly as any recounting of that story ever is, with its prince in a moonlit forest and its swirling pageantry of sweets. Sasha played a mouse, dressed in a black leotard with fuzzy ears and a tail, performing her part while an ornate sleigh drifted through the swelling orchestral music and showers of glittering fake snow. My eyes never left her. My whole being was grateful for her. Sasha stood bright-eyed on stage, looking at first like she couldn’t believe where she was, as if she found the whole scene dazzling and unreal. Which of course it was. But she was young enough still that she could give herself over to it, at least for the moment, allowing herself to move through this heaven where nobody spoke and everyone danced, and a holiday was always just about to arrive.”
A new name for a timeless holiday tradition
Throughout its illustrious history, Talmi and Moscow Ballet have always maintained a strong belief that kindness, joy, love, and happiness play a significant role in every aspect of their productions. As Moscow Ballet and its acclaimed Great Russian Nutcracker celebrate their 30th anniversary of touring North America, the production has been rebranded as “NUTCRACKER! Magic of Christmas Ballet.” This new name is representative of the diverse international cast that comes together from around the world to tour the country and promote an appreciation of ballet and the unity that the art form brings. Bringing people together during the Christmas season has always been at the forefront of the production, and after 30 years of bringing joy and celebration to families nationwide, they continue to welcome new and returning guests to take part in the holiday classic that is “NUTCRACKER! Magic of Christmas Ballet.”