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Published December 07 2010

Going completely 'Nutcracker'

"The Nutcracker” is to ballet what “A Christmas Carol” is to the theater: traditional, seared into the cultural consciousness and just about everywhere you look this time of year.

For example, it’s been a little over a week since the internationally known Moscow Ballet company made a stop in Fargo to stage the Christmas classic. Dance and musical selections from the work were performed this past weekend at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo. The University Orchestra played a concert incorporating selections from the ballet this past weekend. And Bonnie Haney’s School of Dance and Performing Arts will present “The Nutcracker” on Friday and Saturday at the Moorhead High School Auditorium.

So why so much ado about this particular work?

Well, because it’s a colorful, artistic and family-friendly performance that’s become a holiday tradition for so many people.

“The Nutcracker” owes much of its status as holiday lord of the dance repertoire to the fact that it’s a perfect storm of artistic and thematic elements, rolling a story-book plot, strong music and a Christmas setting into a seasonal tour de creative force.

The fantastical story around which it is built isn’t original to ballet but comes from a revision to a tale by 18th- and-19th century author E.T.A. Hoffman. The ballet weaves the fantastical story of Clara, who is given a toy soldier nutcracker for Christmas. She dreams that the nutcracker fights an army of mice and then goes away with her to the Land of Sweets. Of course, it all involves a fairy-tale “happily ever after” kind of ending.

“Who wouldn’t be enchanted by an army of mice fighting an army of soldiers?” says Joy Erickson, who formerly taught in the theater department at North Dakota State University and studied dance at the Behrmann School of Ballet in Silver Spring, Md.

“You can almost think of all of the characters who dance (in the fantasy portion of the ballet) as ornaments that were on the tree that just miraculously come alive,” Erickson says.

It also strikes at the heart of many very human ideals and notions like nobility, living happily ever after and good triumphing over evil. Those elements combine to help inspire a sense of nostalgia and enchantment closely associated with popular notions of Christmas and childhood.

And then there’s, of course, the music.

“I would bet my money on the fact that it’s the music that keeps it going,” says Kathy Gasper, ballet mistress for the Fargo-Moorhead Ballet and master teacher for Gasper’s School of Dance and Performing Arts. She calls Tchaikovsky’s score “really brilliant.”

It’s the sort of music that people might not know that they know. And that’s particularly true of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

This year marks the 24th season that the Bonnie Haney School of Dance and Performing Company has presented “The Nutcracker.”

People tell her, “I’ve heard that music a million times” but didn’t know what it was, Haney says.

The music “just tells you what to do,” says Betsy Bohnenblust, who used to perform in the Haney “Nutcracker” productions when she was younger. Her 7- and 5-year-old daughters are in the 2010 production.

And, as it hits grand heights thematically and musically, it also makes grand visual statements. First set at a Christmas party and then in a land of dreams, “The Nutcracker” lends itself to vivid and colorful costuming as well as set design.

“The costuming is always phenomenal,” Gasper says.

The brilliant costuming of the Moscow Ballet production bore that out, as bright-red soldier attire, flowing formal dresses and a culturally varied wardrobe formed a rainbow of color on stage.

And thanks in part to the visual appeal and fantastical, enchanting story, “The Nutcracker” is a work of art that appeals both to children and their parents.

Erickson remembers seeing one particular child dancing in the concert hall during the intermission of the Moscow Ballet production.

“She was obviously just absolutely enchanted with the whole thing,” Erickson says. “It really is a family ballet.”

Another factor contributing to “The Nutcracker’s” hold on the Christmas dance repertoire is that it has something of a monopoly on the genre.

Erickson says the options for a Christmas ballet are very limited.

“It is the ballet for children and for Christmas,” she says.

Despite its appeal, you might think Haney would be sick of “The Nutcracker” after more than two decades of directing it. But she isn’t. She finds the story inspiring and calls the music “genius.” The new and growing talent among her students helps keep it fresh for her.

And Bohnenblust is right there with her.

“You can never have enough of it,” she says. “Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734