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Dancing for Dollars

The ballet’s cash cow gets a face-lift to boost sales and the company’s endowment.

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The Richmond Ballet is hoping an $820,000 face-lift to its production will keep its “Nutcracker” fresh for years to come. Audiences will see new sets, new costumes and new choreography in the venerable ballet, which opened Dec. 13 at the Landmark Theater.

Stoner Winslett, artistic director of the Richmond Ballet, says she’s known for the past five years or so that the company would need a new version eventually. In the past, she wrote a “what if” list to herself for all the changes she wanted to make. Last year, she canvassed different “Nutcracker” productions throughout the United States and Canada, including versions in Toronto, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, seeing what worked, what didn’t and what would be right for her company.

“The thing about ‘The Nutcracker’ is it’s a ballet and it’s also a theater piece,” she says. “It’s the most complex of all the full-length ballets, and I wanted to tweak some things in the party scene that tie into the dream sequence better and to find ways to keep the interest as high in Act II as it is in Act I for the younger folks.”

Winslett’s primary aim is to make the ballet logical and family-friendly. Her version remains faithful to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story about a young girl, Clara, who receives a nutcracker doll on Christmas Eve. Later that night, Clara dreams her nutcracker comes to life, saves her from an army of mice and turns into a prince who escorts her to the Kingdom of Sweets.

The story line is unruly, but Winslett hopes to crystallize it by focusing on what fuels a little girl’s dream. The ballet opens with a party scene, where all the guests receive gifts. In the second act, dancers personify these gifts as they perform for Clara and her Prince — showing the connection between reality and fantasy in the active imagination of a child.

This logical progression may help audiences follow the ballet, but Winslett also understands the limited attention span of children. Drowsy eyes and nervous feet aren’t a problem in the first act with special effects like a growing Christmas tree, a battle scene with giant mice and a downpour of snow flurries during the Snow Scene that closes the act. It’s the second act — the tutus and tiaras part of the show — that causes many children to yawn.

To correct this, Winslett keeps the action coming. The second act, which is a series of short dances culminating with the Sugarplum Fairy’s pas de deux, incorporates animal themes for each divertissement. For instance, during the Arabian dance, the ballerina portrays a snake; for the Marzipan shepherdesses, little baby sheep scamper around; for the Waltz of the Flowers, the lead dancer will be a butterfly, flown onto the stage like Peter Pan.

Creative choreography helps any “Nutcracker,” but the real stars are its costumes and sets. David Huevel, costume director for Ballet West in Salt Lake City, has designed more than 200 costumes for the production with a healthy $246,000 budget. Everyone from the Sugarplum Fairy to the tiniest mouse gets new threads. It’s a major undertaking, especially with most of the costumes being constructed outside of Richmond.

Working with a team of about 30 people, Heuvel coordinates work in London, Oregon, Atlanta and Boston. Worthy of note on his team is Robert Allsopp, a Londoner who created the mouse heads for the first act’s battle scene. Allsopp is known for his work with the Royal Ballet and in film, creating the armor for Russel Crowe in “Gladiator” and Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto helmet in the “X-Men” series. To say the least, Allsopp is a busy guy and spent only a few days in Richmond to do necessary fittings. It was similar for other people on Huevel’s team, and he admits, “the challenge is for everyone to do everything on time.”

Finishing costumes was only half the battle. Set designer Charles Caldwell put the last drops of paint on the ballet’s immense sets. At Winslett’s suggestion, the first act takes place in a hunting lodge circa 1870 in Nuremberg, Germany (again, in keeping with the original story). The set is purposely dark in a “warm and homey way, not the Edgar Allan Poe way,” Caldwell says, to better frame the colorful costumes. It also contrasts Act II’s Kingdom of Sweets, which he describes as “a palace held up by candy canes in the clouds — like it’s floating on air.”

Caldwell has a long history with Richmond Ballet. Twenty years ago, he constructed the original “Nutcracker” sets in a production that then cost about $50,000, a far cry from the current budget. He says the old version was beautifully maintained but the new version will look “richer and more assured,” much like the company itself.

“I’ve watched the company grow from very limited resources, but with a lot of ambition, to what it is now,” Caldwell says.

Growth is one thing, but is a new production really necessary in tough financial times? Craig Margolis, managing director for the company, says the revenue generated from the ballet constitutes 20 percent of the ballet’s annual budget, pulling in an average of $550,000 to $650,000 per year. “It’s the only production we do that makes money,” he says. “The Nutcracker” pays for itself and funds other programs and general operating costs.”

The new production is also part of the ballet’s $3 million anniversary campaign to raise money for an on-site parking deck, a New York City tour and the creation of an endowment to safeguard the company’s future finances. Already, it has raised $1.4 million, so the Nutcracker’s production bill is paid. As far as advanced ticket sales, Margolis says the real marketing push begins in the middle of November. But he already knows there is a wide audience out there with a personal connection to the ballet.

“It’s part of Richmond’s tradition,” Margolis says. “Just inside Richmond Ballet, we have people who are now grown adults who were in ‘The Nutcracker’ as children, and now their kids are in the school performing in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and 20 years from now these children will bring their children back. It’s a cycle.” S



Richmond Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 13-23 at the Landmark Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. Tickets are available at 262-8100 or www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, call 344-0906 or visit www.richmondballet.com.


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