A New Face for Miami City Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’
Here’s a riddle – name the 1892 box office flop panned by critics for lack of seriousness and for casting too many kids, which has now transformed into a force of nature timed to occur yearly around the winter solstice?
The answer, of course, is “The Nutcracker,” and though many a balletomane might inwardly groan at the first of December, the Scrooges can’t deny that this classic ballet gave many of them their first exposure to the dance and that a successful “Nutcracker”is as important to a contemporary ballet company as a successful black Friday is to Macy’s.
And Miami City Ballet’s production of the holiday favorite is no different. For 27 years South Florida audiences have adored the company’s version, so why a new production and why now?
According to MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez: “Our production was showing its age. Even the costumes and sets were looking ragged.”
Also the scale of the old production was all off. MCB’s “Nutcracker” was set when Miami was a very different city with theaters much smaller than the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht, now one of the largest performing arts venues in the country.
“Also stage craft has advanced in the last 10 to 12 years. You can create a very different magic now than what you could do 27 years ago,” added Lopez.
For the new production’s magic, Lopez relied on an artistic relationship she forged while still in New York – the husband and wife design powerhouse, Ruben and Isabel Toledo. In previous collaborations Lopez discovered in this couple a special knack for negotiating the difficult demands of honoring tradition and infusing freshness.
“Ruben and Isabel respect tradition and so they have really researched the original costumes by Barbara Karinska and the set design of Rouben Ter-Arutunian, and have used these as their points of departure. They have examined the palette of our old ‘Nutcracker’ and they have added their own touches — from the elegance of Isabel’s costuming to the quirkiness and out-of-scaledness of Ruben’s art,” said Lopez.
For Isabel Toledo’s approach to design, think back to Michelle Obama’s knockout two-piece lemongrass outfit the former first lady wore to the 2009 Inauguration.For Toledo, the challenge of designing for dancers is that ballet is not so much an art object as it is an art action where the costumes tell a silent story: “All of the design elements I used in Act One are later repeated and amplified in Act Two,” said Toledo. “When Marie is dreaming of her future in Candyland, all of the visual clues from the Act One Party Scene are enhanced and transformed into the costumes for Act Two. I love this kind of visual poetry, this kind of design transformation.”
Whimsical, sometimes cartoonish, at others borderline goth, Ruben Toledo’s designs strike the eye like a visual tickle. For him, the “Nutcracker”project was not about contrasting the old with the new but to draw juices from Balanchine’s already perfectly formed fruit: “I wanted to paint a world that would make you want to enter into – a painting you can walk into and around,” mused Toledo. “I wanted to make the stage an installation that the dancers will want to inhabit. I hope the visual world created for this ‘Nutcracker’ will help inspire the next chapter of ‘Nutcrackers.’”
And what about the dancing – will all these changes alter the performance of the Balanchine classic in any way? According to MCB principal dancer Jennifer Lauren, South Florida audiences will still see performed the classic Balanchine choreographies. However, the new sets and costumes may change the feelings the ballet inspires. “I do think the sets and costumes will spark a new idea of how the audience sees the show as a whole.”
For Lauren the biggest change for the dancers with this new production is the live music accompanying each performance. When dancing to the Opus 1 orchestra, “my dancing becomes more spontaneous and more genuine,” she said.
For a holiday to-do list, MCB’s new “Nutcracker” promises us something out of the box.
Miami City Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ runs from December 15through December 24, the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Ziff Ballet Opera House, 215-263 NE 13th St., Miami. Tickets $30-$125; 305-929-7010 or https://www.miamicityballet.org/new-nutcracker .