Six Decades of The Nutcracker at Ballet Austin

Stephen Mills sprinkles seasonal magic on a beloved Christmas institution

Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker (photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood / courtesy of Ballet Austin)

There are traditions, and then there are traditions within traditions. Since 1962, Ballet Austin has enchanted audiences with its annual performances of The Nutcracker. But for the last 24 years it has been Artistic Director Stephen Mills' version that has signified the Christmas season, and that record-setting run continues this weekend with the first of another 15 performances at the Long Center.

Fresh off the triumphant return of his original production of Hamlet ("Five people dead onstage, what a way to start a season," he laughed), now he's stepping back into a lineage that started in 1960, when Ballet Austin founder Barbara Carson both directed the then-amateur company and performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It's a lineage comprising leviathans of Austin ballet like Eugene Slavin and Lambros Lambrou (in both of whose stagings Mills danced). Mills himself was arguably thrown in at the deep end in 1999 when he was suddenly in charge of the production only two weeks before curtain-up. "We were swinging art all over the place," Mills said, but because he knew the story so well and already had ideas for what he did and did not want to do, "it was not daunting – other than the timeline."

In some ways, The Nutcracker can be seen as a lesser Tchaikovsky. Less narratively ambitious than the three-act The Sleeping Beauty or the four-act Swan Lake, even the composer was not a huge fan. For Mills, it's not his greatest composition ("Is there better music in The Sleeping Beauty? Yes."), but it's a showcase for his mastery of melody: In short, the Russian composer knew how to write a catchy toe-tapper. "Everyone can hum the 'Waltz of the Flowers' and know what it is," Mills said.

Maybe that's part of why The Nutcracker has become such a pivotal part of the American holiday tradition (although, as Mills noted, Walt Disney including The Nutcracker Suite in his 1940 animated masterpiece Fantasia didn't hurt). Mills suggested that it may in part be because it's a deeply appealing story of "this young girl who becomes this brave, courageous heroine and rescues the Nutcracker."

It's also appealing to companies – and not simply because it's almost guaranteed to sell out to enraptured, often first-time audiences. After all, there's a certain liberty to its staging. Most productions of Tchaikovsky's earlier works use or at least draw upon the original choreography of Imperial Ballet Master Marius Petipa (indeed, Ballet Austin will be using Petipa's steps in their own upcoming production of The Sleeping Beauty, gracing the stage next May 10-12). Yet no such record exists for The Nutcracker, giving each director space for their own fantasy to fly free.

And, like a Russian nesting doll, Mills' version hides another tradition within the tradition within the tradition: the part of Mother Ginger. She's more special effect than dancer, wheeled onstage in a vast dress from under which her children, the polichinelles, emerge as a highlight of Act II. Usually performed by the tallest member of the company, in Austin the part has become an honor bestowed for one night to notables in the community. It all began with tech innovator Michael Dell, and over the years names as illustrious and varied as Gov. Ann Richards, musician Sarah Hickman, and Antonelli's Cheese Shop owner Kendall Antonelli have all glided onto the stage. This year, the roster draws on local elected officials, including Mayor Kirk Watson, who holds the record for the largest number of appearances under (or rather, atop) the frock. "Because Nutcracker is such a community project," Mills said, "we've been focusing on community leaders, as a way to say thank you to our community."

Every year, new Mother Gingers, new audiences, and new opportunities for Mills to revisit an institution, "but ultimately, it remains the same," Mills said. What's truly constant is the thrill of working with new dancers, "young performers who may be having that break for the first time," but most especially with the children. Across the run, over 200 kids will be part of the production. "Some of them are old hands at it," said Mills, but for many it's their first time in a professional show. "Watching them about to burst before their first time onstage is super exciting."

Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker

The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 512/474-5664
Dec. 2-23

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