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Dancing The Nutcracker in Cleveland

Members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 16, 1941

While The Cleveland Orchestra is known for its immaculate performances of orchestral music, they have also been known to branch out into the masterworks of opera and ballet from time to time. In anticipation of The Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ with the Pennsylvania Ballet (November 30—December 4 at Playhouse Square), let’s look back at other times we have presented productions of the work in the past.

The Nutcracker has appeared on the Orchestra’s concert season six times with three different companies: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1940 and 1941), Dayton Civic Ballet (January and December 1965), and the Joffrey Ballet (2012 and 2014).This does not include the countless times that excerpts of the work have been presented, either danced or as music alone, through the Orchestra’s history. One of the most popular excerpts to present isthe pas de deux from Act II, which features the famous Sugar Plum Fairy variation.

Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was an offshoot company of the Ballets Russes, the legendary company founded in 1909 by impresario Serge Diaghilev. The original company was the most important force in pushing the boundaries of dance away from pure classicist story ballet to something more adventurous and avant-garde. They commissioned many works, the most famous of which are Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910), Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun (1912), and, of course, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913). The Ballets Russes featured not only the highest quality of dancers, but also commissioned sets and costumes from high-profile artists (including Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, Coco Chanel, and Henri Matisse) and scores from composers of great esteem (Igor Stravisnky, Eric Satie, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, and even Richard Strauss). The Ballets Russes visited Cleveland on one occasion, in the spring of 1916. These productions were sponsored by the Musical Arts Association, the same organization that is behind The Cleveland Orchestra.
When a variety of factors drove the Ballets Russes out of business in 1929, artists associated with the original company scrambled to fill the vacuum. Eventually, two companies sprang up: the Original Ballets Russes and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Both were well-regarded, although neither quite reached the levels of artistic significance of their parent company. Perhaps most importantly, however, they maintained the legacy of the original company well into the twentieth century, and they both toured extensively, ensuring that the innovations of the Ballets Russes reached new audiences.

As a part of their touring schedule, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo held a yearly engagement with The Cleveland Orchestra at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium from 1934-1941. They would come into town for a few programs in November, which became highlights of the Orchestra’s season. On the afternoon of November 23, 1940 they performed The Nutcracker (slightly condensed), followed by Capriccio Espagnol and Vienna—1814.

Cleveland Orchestra concert program page, November 23, 1940

For the 1940 performances, the famous role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was given to the star dancer of the company at the time, Alicia Markova. Markova, who had joined the first iteration of the Ballets Russes in 1925 at the age of 14, was by 1940 one of the most famous dancers in the world. As was true of many ballerinas of the day, Markova was also looked to as a beauty and style icon. We can see this in an interview she gave in anticipation of her performances in Cleveland, concerning how to make one’s legs as elegant as a ballerina’s:

The Cleveland Press, Article by Mary MacFadyen, November 22, 1940

The following year, in 1941, The Nutcracker was once again performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with The Cleveland Orchestra. This time, the Sugar Plum was Tamara Toumanova, a dancer who had been brought aboard the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo by Balanchine in 1931, aged twelve, as one of his “baby ballerinas.” She became one of the star attractions of the troupe. Thanks to Toumanova’s movie-star good looks, she also found something of a second career in Hollywood: she starred opposite James Stewart in Days of Glory (1944), played Anna Pavlova in the biopic Tonight we Sing (1953), and danced with Gene Kelly in Invitation to the Dance (1956), among other roles.

Photographer unknown, New Haven Register, November 23,1941

Toumanova would come back to Cleveland in 1944, this time as a guest artist of Ballet Theatre (today known as American Ballet Theater), and she would once again dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy—this time, only the pas de deux from Act II was performed. On the same program, she also danced as Odette/Odile in a semi-complete version of Swan Lake—pairing this role with anything would have demanded an incredible feat of stamina!

Photographer unknown, the Cleveland News, November 20, 1944

After the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s final performances in 1941, a plotted version of The Nutcracker would not be performed with The Cleveland Orchestra until 1965. This is unsurprising, as the ballet would not be considered a holiday mainstay in the United States for several years: a complete version produced by an American company did not appear until 1944 (this was Willem Christenson’s version for the San Francisco Ballet). It wasn’t until George Balanchine’s 1954 setting that the ballet was catapulted to its current position of must-see entertainment for the holiday season.

Dayton Civic Ballet

The Dayton Civic Ballet was a well-regarded company of ballet students, aged 10-20. In 1964, The Cleveland Orchestra reached out to them, inquiring about the possibility of mounting a version of The Nutcracker to celebrate the holiday season. The ballet company had never attempted anything so ambitious before, but was determined to take on the project. According to an article in the Dayton Journal Herald,

“Can we do it?’ was the first reaction of ballet master David McLain, who had seen the New York City ballet, San Francisco and the Ballet Russe productions of the “Nutcracker” with 40 dancers or more. Dayton’s young training company could count on maybe 23. “If the Cleveland orchestra wants us,” decided director Josephine Schwarz, “we’ll dance Stravinsky’s ‘Noah’ if necessary.”

For the production, a team of 100 volunteers assembled the over sixty costumes needed for the production. To create a family-friendly afternoon entertainment, the score was cut from ninety minutes to about sixty. The most major change was the removal of the party scene (Act I), enabling audiences to experience the popular divertissements from Act II without any sacrifices. The choreography was by Dayton Civic’s ballet master, David McLain, and was designed to showcase the abilities of the young troupe. This version was performed on January 3, 1965, and the performance was also taped for later broadcast on local television stations.

Photographer unknown, Dayton Daily News, December 28, 1964

The performance was greeted with great enthusiasm, and the show was sold out. Reviews the next day were overwhelmingly positive. The Dayton Civic Ballet was invited to come back with the show the next year, and so they danced it again in Severance Hall on the day after Christmas, this time with the first act included.

Joffrey Ballet

The Cleveland Orchestra and The Joffrey Ballet have collaborated on numerous occasions. This partnership is a natural fit, as both companies are known as among the best in the world, yet both maintain strong Midwestern roots. The Joffrey performed at Blossom with the Orchestra in 1972, 1979, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013. They also came to Severance Hall last season (April 2016) for an acclaimed run of performances of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard’s Castle. Members of the trainee program came and performed selections of The Nutcracker in 2011, for a children’s concert in Severance Hall, and The Joffrey Ballet has danced The Nutcracker here in Cleveland twice, in 2012 and 2014, both times with The Cleveland Orchestra at Playhouse Square.

Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer Zachary Lewis wrote that the 2014 performances were “a display that stuns throughout, not just at such pivotal moments as the snow scene, rendered magical here not only by an impeccable cast of snowflakes and snow winds but also by the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus.”

Pennsylvania Ballet

When the Pennsylvania Ballet performs The Nutcracker this holiday season, they aren’t just performing any choreography. They will be dancing George Balanchine’s choreography, which is extremely important to the history of the work. When the New York City Ballet premiered it in 1954, it became the first widely popular version of the ballet from an American company. Balanchine’s legacy is carefully guarded by The Balanchine Trust, and this version of The Nutcracker is performed only with the explicit permission and oversight of the Trust. This makes performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ especially rare outside of New York, and also ensures their quality. The Pennsylvania Ballet has long been associated with Balanchine repertory—the company was founded by Barbara Weisberger, a protégée of George Balanchine. Balanchine’s technique is still a foundational part of how the company dances, and they are guaranteed to do justice to this important work in the history of dance.

-Sophie Benn
Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.
All audio courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Further Resources:
Want to know more about the history of ballet? Check out Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans.
More about George Balanchine: Balanchine and the Lost Muse by Elizabeth Kendall.
There is also an earlier From the Archives article on early ballet productions entitled “Dancing through Time.” Click here to read!