The Austin Chronicle

Sweet New Nut

Ballet Austin Gives an Old Favorite a New Look

By Robert Faires, December 13, 1996, Arts

Do the math. Ballet company + the month of December equals... Yup, The Nutcracker. For more than 40 years, the dance adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's fantasy has been a staple of the year-end holiday scene, and in the past two decades, its popularity has snowballed so that it's all but impossible to find a city in this country that doesn't offer one production of the ballet during the twelfth month, and in some cities -- like Austin -- two Nutcrackers is now the norm. Come December, Americans want to hear that Tchaikovsky score, want to see Clara and her jumbo-jawed hero trounce their whiskered foes and zip off for that all-expenses-paid vacation to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and ballet companies are doing all they can to give it to as many of them as possible: staging them in larger venues, adding performances, starting their runs in November. Mr. Demand, meet Mr. Supply.

Tommy Bourgeois' costume design for a Spanish Dancer in the Ballet Austin production of The Nutcracker
Obviously, the dance companies get a lot out of their annual December trips to the Kingdom of the Sweets. Their Nutcrackers generate blizzards of revenue which help keep them afloat the other 11 months of the year and help subsidize their less familiar, often more adventurous work. Moreover, they bring in massive crowds of people who might not otherwise set foot inside a theatre when the ballet is en pointe. And if those folks like what they see, they might be persuaded to come back and see something else by the company, which ensures not only more revenue for the company but a future audience for all ballet.

Still, these Nutcrackers do not come without a price. They're terribly demanding to produce, requiring platoons of dancers and musicians, elaborate settings and costumes, and a sleighful of spectacle. In some cases, as with Ballet Austin, the number of artists involved can top 200. Coordinating that many people to do anything -- say, walk and chew gum together -- is a considerable feat; coordinating that many to move or play or sing on cue (and do it in an artful fashion) and to provide sets, costumes, lighting, and music that foster feelings of wonder and drama, is akin to plotting the Creation. Only, it costs money.

This year, Ballet Austin is particularly mindful of the cost and effort involved in staging a Nutcracker. While the company has been in the business of producing the December dance classic for more than 30 years, this year the company has completely retooled its annual production, working up entirely new sets and costumes, and adding much new choreography. Developing this revamp has taken the company a full year and cost it approximately $225,000.

According to Artistic Director Lambros Lambrou, creating a new Nutcracker for Ballet Austin had become a bit of a necessity. The company had been using the same production since the early Eighties, and its age was showing. Until about three years ago, that production had held up very well, says Lambrou, "but about that time it began to show real signs of wear." The sets were losing their luster, fabric was fraying; the show was crumbling beyond the point of easy repair. So Lambrou and the ballet's board moved to give their Nutcracker a full-body makeover.

For Lambrou, who inherited his predecessors' version when he arrived in 1989, this meant at last being able to put his own creative stamp on the perennial show. That was important, he says, because "it's pretty hard to tell the story with somebody else's concept." He enlisted the aid of two designers in whom he felt great confidence: Richard Isackes, a set designer and head of design for the UT Department of Theatre & Dance; and Tommy Bourgeois, a Dallas costume designer with whom Lambrou had worked on the ballet's 1994 production of Romeo and Juliet.

Tommy Bourgeois' costume design for Herb Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker
Now, designing costumes for The Nutcracker is not for the faint of heart. Just in terms of the number of outfits involved, it's a huge strain: You have one oversized Nutcracker, one big Rat King, a Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, two royals from the Land of Snow, three Mechanical Dolls, three Mints, four members of the Silberhaus clan, eight tiny reindeer, nine exotic dancers from four different countries, a dozen waltzing flowers, a dozen-and-a-half rats, a couple dozen party guests, umpteen angels, mice, and snowflakes, and a bucket of bonbons, plus a giant skirt to hide 'em in. It's an army -- literally, once you add in the dozen or so toy soldiers.

Fortunately for Bourgeois, the job of designing a Nutcracker is one for which he's been preparing for some time. "This is the first one I've actually designed for a company," he admits, "but I've designed one in my mind for years. You see different things and say, `Oh, store that away. That'll be a great piece to use some time.'" When Lambrou approached him about Ballet Austin's Nutcracker, Bourgeois was able to tap his reservoir of ideas and start putting them together.

Late in 1995, the designers and Lambrou began discussing what the new Nutcracker would look like. Their first step was deciding on a "take" on the story. "There are a million different ways to do The Nutcracker," Bourgeois says. In recent years, adventurous variations on the traditional version have been gaining ground, everything from Mark Morris' The Hard Nut, set in the Sixties, to Donald Byrd's Harlem Nutcracker, with its African-American slant, to our very own Greg Easley's World War II era Nutcracker in the Blitz. "You see all kinds of different readings now," says Lambrou. "And we played around with various ideas, like `Should we set it in Texas?'" Bourgeois says, "At one point, we talked about doing a version set in the Twenties, kind of an art deco period, which I think lends itself to some really beautiful stage pictures. But I'm not sure that it would be the sort of thing that people would want to see year after year. You try to find something that's different, but at the same time you try to keep enough tradition to it that people will want to see it over and over."

For Lambrou also, retaining a sense of tradition was important. "It's nice to see other people's readings," he says, "and those kinds of productions are all well and good, but one of the things that impressed me as a kid the first time I saw Swan Lake, the first time I saw Giselle, was a traditional rendering. With The Nutcracker, I always try to remember that you have children coming to the ballet for the first time."

The designers settled on a "traditional" reading, but that still left them options regarding the setting. Bourgeois notes that you can get a traditional feel from the late 1800s, which is when most Nutcrackers are set, or you can go for an earlier period. "I went to a period that I like a lot, the Napoleonic period, and Lambros liked the idea," he says. In terms of dress, it offered "some neat military options for your Nutcracker and the dolls, and elegant lines for the women's gowns." In terms of dance, it suited Lambrou's sensibility. "The Napoleonic period lends itself to certain modes of behavior," says Lambrou, "a classical style of movement, and that's what I work in."

From there, Bourgeois began designing the actual characters, beginning with the ballet's big fink, the Rat King. "He was the first thing to draw and the easiest thing to draw," says the designer. In Bourgeois' vision, "he's a little bit bigger than life. He has three crowns that appear to be one crown. Color-wise, he's in the mossy greens, but he has a big red sash and gold hanging on the ends. The epaulets to his coat make his shoulders look especially big, but instead of stylish gold and black ones, he has these grungy ones with batted material off the ends. So it looks kind of military but more like what a rat would wear. I hope."

Rat grunge notwithstanding, Bourgeois found much of his effort in designing The Nutcracker was bound up in "trying to make the dancers look as elegant as possible. The first act of this production is kind of an upper-society party, so you try to make the elegance of that happen. It was kind of funny, when we were building the first act, as we went along, we made the outfits more and more elaborate. And we decided that these people had no poor relations. They looked like some royal family getting together for a party. With some really big rats."

Tommy Bourgeois' costume design for Arabian Dancer in The Nutcracker
Complicating the job of creating an elegant look were the practical considerations of building clothes to be danced in. As Lambrou puts it, "When you see the designs, sometimes you say, `Great. But are they going to be able to move in that?'" Think about the trouble you have just getting in and out of the car in some of your clothes; try doing a few dozen turns, twists, and leaps in them. It's the designer's job to take ease of mobility into account. And in line with that, the designer has to consider the issue of durability. "You have to find fabrics that are durable enough to last," says Bourgeois. Some of the nicer, more beautiful fabrics won't hold up." It's no good producing a breathtaking uniform for the Nutcracker if it can't absorb the dancer's sweat or it rips every time he lifts his saber.

An invaluable ally to the designer in making his or her drawings workable in practice is the fabric cutter. When Bourgeois accepted the Nutcracker assignment, he knew exactly who he wanted. Joanne Boudreau had worked with Bourgeois on the Ballet Austin Romeo and Juliet. "It was a fabulous experience," he recalls. To make sure she would be available, Bourgeois says, "I called her six months before to book her."

The actual construction of the costumes has been underway since July, and one can only guess at the thousands of hours that have been involved in fitting, cutting, sewing, and altering the production's numerous outfits. But despite all the sketches and swatches and stitches that the project has entailed, Bourgeois doesn't feel overloaded. "It was never really work," he claims. "People took a great interest in it. Many of them were able to go the extra mile for it. That made it that much more of an exciting experience."

As this new Nutcracker approaches its debut, its creators are unusually enthusiastic. "It's all come together," Lambrou says with relish. "I can't wait for opening night. Usually, there's a bit of apprehension that you feel before opening, but not this time. It's been fun." Bourgeois is confident of the audience's approval. "I think," he says, "that the product they're going to get is definitely worth it."

The Nutcracker runs Dec 13-23 at the Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus.

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.