Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker a true holiday classic

Featured image: A sign promoting Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker outside Keller Auditorium in Portland (photo by Cheryl Landes)

It’s a holiday classic in every sense: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker. And the Oregon Ballet Theatre is among a handful of ballet companies in the US that still has the rights to produce George Balanchine’s version.

So, what’s the difference between Balanchine’s version and the others? More children, for starters.

In Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production, Marie (known as Clara elsewhere)* and the Nutcracker/Prince are danced by children, so their roles are choreographed to be less difficult than the adults. In the second act, Marie doesn’t dance at all, and the Prince’s role is limited to a pantomime that describes how he defeated the Mouse King and how Marie helped. Instead, Marie and the Prince sit on a big throne in the castle in the Land of the Sweets and watch the dancers perform in their honor. It’s a grand celebration of the victory over the Mouse King.

And, because of the main characters’ ages, there’s no adult romantic interest implied between Marie and the Prince. But during the Christmas party at Marie’s parents’ house, she appears to be drawn to toymaker Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who looks like the Prince. Perhaps it’s only a crush?

The Oregon Ballet Theatre’s set for Marie parents’ home is designed in rich, dark colors, which reminds me of a European Victorian home interior in the 1800s. The dancers are dressed in period costumes for the party. The scenes where Marie and the Prince are transported to the Land of the Sweets and watch the victory celebration are simply beautiful.

And throughout, the dancing is spectacular.

If you go, I recommend arriving early. An hour before the performance, there’s a pre-ballet lecture, where you get a glimpse into the dancers’ daily routine. Every morning, they go to “class”, which is where they warm up, practice, and focus on moves that need refining. For example, some of the couples practiced difficult moves that required lifting and balancing. Typically they spend the entire morning in class.

During the lecture, we saw a video of a performance from the Mouse King’s perspective. The video was recorded with a camera attached to the Mouse King’s head, which filmed the battle sequence. I gained a new appreciation of the challenges the mice have when they are dancing the battle scene with heavy costumes and limited visibility. It takes a lot of skill and hours of practice.

At the end of the lecture, we learned the sign language for the Prince’s pantomime, when he tells the story of the battle. The Prince performed the pantomime while the speaker described every move. Although I felt I mostly understood the pantomine in previous performances here and at other ballet companies, this presentation was very helpful.

Later, when the doors opened for the performance, I found an article fully describing the pantomime (with pictures) in the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s program. And when I saw the Prince silently tell the story on stage, I could interpret every move.

The Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker runs from the second week of December through Christmas Eve at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay Street, in downtown Portland. Its production of The Nutcracker enters the 15th season this year.

For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker page. Tickets go on sale in the fall.

Most performances include live music by the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, and the rest use recorded music. The schedule on the Nutcracker page shows which performances have live music.

Discounted parking for shows at the Keller Auditorium is available across the street at the KOIN-TV building, 222 SW Columbia Street. If you prefer to take public transit, it’s a short walk from either the Portland Streetcar or the MAX (light rail). Go to Tri-Met’s Trip Planner to plan your trip.

* Why did the Oregon Ballet Theatre use the name, Marie, for the main character instead of Clara? It’s because Marie is used in the original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Read a summary of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

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