Chestnuts, Fairies, and a Sword-Wielding Mouse King Make Ballet Tucson’s Christmas Nutcracker a Must-See This WeekendThursday, December 20th, 2012
One of my happiest holiday childhood memories revolves around chestnuts. As a little boy, growing up in London in the late 1960s, I would look forward, with great anticipation, to the arrival of roast chestnuts. These decidedly December-flavored treats never seemed to be available during the rest of the year and I, therefore, have always associated the tasty nut with Christmas.
My favorite childhood haunt was the British Museum, sitting in all its Greco-Roman splendor on Great Russell Street. Londoners call it “The B.M.,” and its paved forecourt always seemed dizzyingly awash with visiting students and scholars, meeting, laughing, hugging, comparing notes, and poring over guides and floor plans to the museum’s astonishing collection of artistic and archaeological treasures. Around the middle of December, each year, the throngs of budding intellectuals were quietly joined by a solitary, hardworking and — in my mind at least — somewhat melancholy old man hunched, slightly, over an incandescent steel barrel. He was the Chestnut Man. I took him to be a World War II veteran dressed, as he was, in a faded military jacket, with a grey, flat cap, and palm-sized woolen gloves that exposed his fingertips. I found the Chestnut Man fascinating and — aged perhaps six, and clutching my mother’s hand — I would trade him two shillings for a small, white paper bag filled with chestnuts, hot to the touch and freshly plucked from his roasting barrel.
Not to be confused with the horse chestnut — an unpalatable nut common in the United Kingdom and used by school boys in the strange game called “conkers” — the edible or “sweet” chestnut is actually produced by a beech tree of the family Fagaceae. When properly roasted, and once the hard, reddish brown shell has been removed, the sweet chestnut is a heavenly snack: pale yellow in color, with a meaty consistency and a taste similar to macadamia nuts.
And so, each December when Ballet Tucson’s award-winning production of the ever-popular Nutcracker opens with an alluring and solitary dancer, The Chestnut Lady, elegantly serving her wares, it cannot fail to strike a chord of memory and delight in my heart.
Nutcracker was first performed in St. Petersbug, Russia in 1892, based on a story by the German author E.T.A. Hoffman, and choreographed by Lev Ivanov and Franco-Russian ballet dancer Marius Petipa. It was first performed outside Russia in 1919 (Budapest), and in the Twentieth Century went on to enjoy tremendous worldwide popularity, especially in the United States.
The decidedly cosmopolitan origins of Nutcracker are well reflected by the international flavor of Ballet Tucson’s company: long-time principal male dancer Daniel Precup is of Romanian origin; Kyle Peterson was born in the United Kingdom; Akari Manabe joins the company from Kobe, Japan; while Canadian dancer Kate Kaupas’ home town is Calgary. And Kate’s success story with Ballet Tucson is particularly noteworthy. She joined the company three years ago as an apprentice; in her second year she won the Kim Terry Memorial Scholarship for excellence in dance; and is, this year, a featured soloist as the Dew Drop Fairy. Perhaps one out of every class of young dance students will be fortunate enough to land a job as a professional company dancer, and perhaps one in twenty of those will experience the thrill of performing onstage as a featured soloist, so the Friday premiere of Nutcracker will be a big night for Ms. Kaupas.
“Performing with Ballet Tucson is one of the most inspiring experiences of my professional dance career,” Kaupas said. “I feel very privileged to be cast in such an important role and I look forward to bringing Dew Drop Fairy to life this weekend at Centennial Hall.”
And it’s not just the dreams of professional dancers that will manifest themselves this weekend. Ballet Tucson is committed to sharing the uplifting experience of Nutcracker throughout our community. “We give 1,000 free Nutcracker tickets to underserved children and their families, and to social service agencies in our community,” said Operations Manager Cynthia Hansen. “The Board of Directors goes out and raises money to support this program. We travel to Tucson’s most needy schools to teach dance with our ‘Put Your Best Foot Forward with Ballet Tucson’ educational outreach. In addition Assistant Artisitic Director Chieko Imada and her team of Ballet Tucson dancers teach five classes per week to elementary students in some of Tucson’s most impoverished areas.”
As I have said in this column before, it is one thing to talk about supporting the arts and another to actually do it. Ballet Tucson brings excellent classical and contemporary ballet to Tucson, while reaching out to underprivileged communities to foster an appreciation of the arts at a grassroots level. That is more than supporting the arts; it is building an artistic community from the ground up. And, perhaps most important of all, Founder and Artistic Director Mary Beth Cabana’s Ballet Arts School is training the next generation of professional dancers. Her students have gone on to win scholarships and/or perform professionally with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), The Kirov Academy and many other world-class companies. That is quite a remarkable accomplishment for a school in our small city. You have to start somewhere, and many of Ms. Cabana’s youngest students will be appearing in this weekend’s Nutcracker, some of them in their first-ever public performance.
Operations Manager, Cynthia Hansen, says it perfectly: “We believe the arts have the power to transform lives and we do our part by introducing children to the discipline and wonderful world of dance.”
So, if the Chestnut Lady, the feisty Mouse King, the Fairies, the Snow Queen, and the Snowflakes are still not quite enough excitement for you, bear in mind that this production of Nutcracker may just introduce some of the great dancers of tomorrow. One of the mice children making his or her debut this weekend could be soloing at American Ballet Theater ten years from now. That is the stuff of Christmas dreams.
A few days ago, and to my considerable amazement, I discovered a small stash of fresh, sweet chestnuts at the supermarket.”What are these?” the lady at checkout asked, wrinking her nose and holding them up close, then peering, quizzically, at their dark and streamlined shapes. Unroasted, and still cased in tough, sanguine shells, the pretty chestnuts looked nearly identical to the ones a little boy used to wolf down during cold winter evenings on Great Russell Street.
I’ll be roasting them tomorrow afternoon, so if you see happen to see a TucsonCitizen.com blogger and dance enthusiast outside Centennial Hall this weekend, with a smile on a face and a little white bag of chestnuts in his hands, that’ll be me.
Ballet Tucson performs Nutcracker this weekend at Centennial Hall. Show times are Friday, December 21 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, December 22 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, December 23 at 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Ticket prices range from $17 to $56 and are available through the Centennial Hall Ticket Office.
Text © by Geoffrey Notkin. Photographs © Ed Flores and Geoffrey Notkin, as noted above.
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