Grand Rapids Ballet brings Chris Van Allsburg’s art to life in new ‘Nutcracker’
By Adrienne Warber
“The Nutcracker” is about the magic of Christmas and childhood imagination. The story told through the artistry of dance ushers in the Christmas season for many West Michigan families. In much the same manner, families all over the country love the art of children’s book author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, and many of his books are favorite childhood stories. Grand Rapids Ballet is taking two classic family traditions to create a new one. This year, Grand Rapids Ballet is bringing the art of Chris Van Allsburg to life on stage in the new world premiere of “The Nutcracker” on Friday, December 12.
Two Years in the Making
Patricia Barker worked with children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak at the Pacific Northwest Ballet to create a new version of the “Nutcracker” that has become an annual holiday tradition in Seattle, Washington. When Barker became the artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, she had a vision to create a new “Nutcracker” for Grand Rapids that would be unique to West Michigan as a holiday tradition, and had the potential to tour nationally. She knew Chris Van Allsburg, one of America’s most innovative picture book creators, was the best person to create the new look and style of this “Nutcracker” project. Van Allsburg is also a native of Grand Rapids, which gives him a special tie to this community project. Van Allsburg has written and illustrated numerous children’s books, many of which have become treasured childhood classics. Two of his books, “The Polar Express,” and “Jumanji” won Caldecott Medals, and another book, “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi,” received a Caldecott Honor Book citation from the American Library Association.
“We have evolved in 30 years into a professional company and it was time to create something new, something for this organization, and something special for this community. So we decided to reimagine the “Nutcracker” and to work with Chris, who is from Grand Rapids,” says Barker.
The selection of a set designer was a critical element so that Van Allsburg’s art is presented correctly and fluidly in the set design. Van Allsburg recommended award-winning set designer Eugene Lee to develop the “Nutcracker” set. Lee won Tony awards for the set design of “Wicked,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide.” He also won an Emmy award for production design for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Lee recently designed the new set for “The Tonight Show,” starring Jimmy Fallon.
Barker brought in Val Caniparoli of the San Francisco Ballet to do the choreography. Caniparoli is one of America’s most sought after choreographers, and has built a distinguished career over the past 35 years. He is known for his innovative choreography.
“Val Caniparoli was my only choice for choreographer. I’ve worked with Val a lot over my 27 year career. I love his ability to tell a story, and how he works with the dancers. His ability, his sense of humor, and his professionalism shine through every single day. It had to be someone I could trust my dancers with. Val likes to work with people in a room and in discussion. He drives the work, but works in true collaboration with all the other artists,” comments Barker.
A Cross-Country Collaboration
For two years, the creative team of Barker, Van Allsburg, Lee and Caniparoli, have developed this new “Nutcracker” from across the miles. Barker lives in Michigan, Van Allsburg is in Massachusetts and Lee is based in New York, Caniparoli is in California. The creative team communicated and collaborated through visits, email and by phone. Grand Rapids Ballet executive staff and stage crew flew to New York to work with Lee in his design shop. Van Allsburg and Caniparoli came to Grand Rapids to collaborate with Barker and Grand Rapids Ballet staff. The world premiere of “The Nutcracker” this weekend is the result of the artistic vision and collaboration of this creative team for the past two years.
“It is a joy to work with Chris, Eugene and Val. It is an honor to present our creative interpretation of this cherished story to the people of Grand Rapids,” says Barker.
A Show with Special Meaning
This “Nutcracker” has special meaning for Chris Van Allsburg and the Grand Rapids community. Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg was inspired to collaborate with the Grand Rapids Ballet’s new “Nutcracker” project by the memory of seeing his daughter dance as Clara in the Festival Ballet Providence’s production of “The Nutcracker” in Rhode Island.
For the Grand Rapids community, this “Nutcracker” is a unique production that was created especially for West Michigan and will be performed by the Grand Rapids Ballet dancers. When the Grand Rapids Ballet takes “The Nutcracker” on tour throughout the country, the show will represent the Grand Rapids community and its artistic achievements. Grand Rapids Ballet already has some shows lined up for a 2015 tour.
Grand Rapids Ballet Executive Director Glenn Del Vecchio comments on his hopes for audience reaction to the show, “I hope the audience feels a sense of pride. This is a national level show and it will be performed in major metropolitan cities by our dancers, starting next year. This show is as good as any Broadway show, and it was built in Grand Rapids, MI. This is a significant piece of art that is done for and by Grand Rapids.”
‘Nutcracker’ Set Installation
This week, the Grand Rapids Ballet has been installing the new “Nutcracker” set at DeVos Performance Hall. This set is entirely new, based on Van Allsburg’s art and Lee’s design collaboration. After the installation, the dancers have two days to rehearse on the new set before the show premieres.
Anyone who saw the Grand Rapids Art Museum exhibition, “Re-envisioning The Nutcracker,” which opened November 20 and runs until January 11, will be struck by how much the set matches the original Van Allsburg sketches. This was accomplished by teams of artists who had to duplicate Van Allsburg’s art using a grid system to create exact matches of the designs by hand in larger sizes for set purposes. For example, two artists recreated Van Allsburg’s Drosselmeyer painting on a large backdrop by handpainting the image square by square on a grid to create one seamless image that matches Van Allsburg’s original drawing.
Commenting on the set installation process, Grand Rapids Ballet Stage Manager Melissa Slack says, “This is a time to make sure that all the parts and pieces come together. We’re making sure we carve out enough time for each person in each department to get everything that they need done. We’re adding little nuances in how each department needs their space. We have an 11 page schedule for five days. We plan out every hour of the day to make sure what is going up and when it is going up so that everything goes smoothly.”
What will it be like for the dancers to dance on the new set? The rehearsals on the set will help the dancers get oriented to the new scenery and staging.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli talks about how the set installation affects the choreography, “When you see where the sets go, things will change daily as we work on stage. You see things differently when you are on stage than in the studio sometimes. Choreographically things often change the more you see it, and it can change daily as we work on stage.”
‘Nutcracker’ Ticket Information and Show Times
Grand Rapids Ballet will have a special viewing of the new “Nutcracker” at “The Nutcracker Premiere Gala” on Thursday, December 11 in partnership with Hospice of Michigan at DeVos Performance Hall. Proceeds benefit both Hospice of Michigan and Grand Rapids Ballet. “The Nutcracker Premiere Gala” is the first chance to see the show performed, and be in the same audience with Van Allsburg and his family, and then to attend an afterglow party with the cast. Tickets are still available for Thursday’s gala performance at DeVos Performance Hall and the afterglow party at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel for $150 per person. Call Kyle Amanda Dutkiewicz at (616) 454-4771, ext. 11 to purchase tickets and for more information on the gala.
“The Nutcracker” opens on Friday, December 12, and will present eight shows that run on the weekends of December 12-14 and December 19-21 at DeVos Performance Hall. Evening shows start at 7:30 pm and afternoon shows start at 2:00 pm. Friday shows are at 7:30 pm, Saturday shows run at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday shows starting at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available for purchase at Ticketmaster. For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Ballet website.
This is a “Nutcracker” that promises to surprise and delight the entire family.
Originally published on Examiner.com on December 10, 2014