At first glance, the Great Russian Nutcracker may seem like most other traditional versions. However, with careful thought and consideration from the producers, great efforts have been made to find a balance between embracing tradition and exploring ingenuity. If audience members look closely, there are certain details that pay homage to dance history (references to Garnier’s Paris Opera House, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni, etc). Such elements add nuanced layers to the entire experience, leading audiences to revisit this production year after year. Today we’re asking Mary Talmi, one of Moscow Ballet’s co-producers and creators, what makes the Great Russian Nutcracker different from other versions and how such details elevate the viewer’s experience.
1. How do you incorporate local children into a show that tours? What do they learn in the process?
We celebrate children! The arts can make a difference. This is the philosophy behind the educational outreach that has seen close to 6,000 children perform in Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker.
Every year, teachers arrive from Russia in late August to begin eight weeks of Great Russian Nutcracker audition tours. Each Russian teacher is given a section of the country to tour and visits about 35 American dance schools. These schools are “host schools” and our community partners. The American school directors work with our Russian audition directors to select the children. The audition directors teach the choreography over a 3-5 day period. The host dance teacher is then responsible for rehearsing the choreography during the weeks leading up to the performance. Children’s roles include Party Guests, Mice, Snowflakes, Little Snow Maidens, and Act 2 variations. On average, 60 children are cast.
We have found this to be an extremely gratifying experience all around. Not only do the children have the opportunity to meet a dancer from a different country (the audition director), but for most, it’s an introduction to the Russian ballet style. It’s an eye-opening experience both to the training and the culture. The day of show is very exciting as the children rehearse on stage with the company for two hours and then perform. The company provides beautifully designed costumes for the children. It's a highly controlled, very professional experience that has led to many friendships over the last twenty years.
2. You refer to Act II as the ‘Land of Peace & Harmony’ instead of the ‘Land of Sweets’ — can you please elaborate on this choice?
The idea to change the title of Act II to the ‘Land of Peace & Harmony’ (a place where there would be no wars and all children live in peace with nature) came about as a response to the movement in which Russian mothers protested their sons going to war. Act 2 opens with the Doves of Peace duet. The Doves lead Masha and Nutcracker through the Winter Forest into the ‘Land of Peace & Harmony.’
3. Tell us about the use of puppets and what they represent.
The puppets in Act 2 represent nature - as well as kindness, strength, and intelligence. The Nutcracker and Masha use all these qualities to win the battle against the Mice. They also add whimsy and humor to the staging.
As a fellow dancer and dance history enthusiast, Mary Talmi is a legend in her own right. Last month, we featured a piece on female choreographers such as Agnes deMille, Twyla Tharp, and Camille A. Brown. Mary, a Juilliard graduate, is truly a pioneer — she was one of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s choreographers for American Ballet Theatre’s Choreographic Workshop and received tremendous acclaim for her work with Connecticut Dance Theater. Her talents didn’t stop with choreography. Her true passion lies in working with children and transforming communities through arts education. Her initiatives with children ultimately led to the inclusion of kids in the Great Russian Nutcracker, a relationship that instantly bonds the audience with the performers.
Mary is just one of dozens of accomplished artists whose talent helps bring this production to life. The synthesis of creativity from costume designers, sound engineers, puppeteers, and more can be seen in a whole new light on film. The attention to detail, which often goes overlooked in a proscenium setting, can now be appreciated in a new medium. Although we’re sad not to be touring this year, we’re thrilled for audiences to get a better look at what goes on both on- and off the-stage. Ultimately, we’re committed to sharing the gifts of so many artists who have contributed to this production for the last twenty-five years. Get closer to ballet this Christmas season, find awe in the details, and join the dance.
Author: Danielle Schulz