Vodka notwithstanding, few Russian exports have become so interweaved into American culture as “The Nutcracker.”
First premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, both the story’s characters and the musical score by Tchaikovsky have since become an integral part of Christmas celebrations in the United States.
For two decades now, beginning soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, 40 dancers with the Moscow Ballet have traveled throughout the U.S. during the Christmas season, presenting their take on the classic ballet, the “Great Russian Nutcracker.”
On Sunday, they return to Charleston for two performances near the end of their 20th anniversary tour, revealing an updated take on “The Nutcracker” that also incorporates nearly 100 local children.
Those familiar with the traditional two-act ballet will notice changes to this year’s production, including the introduction of the “Dove of Peace,” a bird with a 20-foot wingspan created by dancers Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrachenko, deemed “knockouts” by The New York Times.
It’s part of an adaptation to the classic storyline that eliminates the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy (but not the song), replacing it with the Land of Peace and Harmony, where the Dove fills the role of the Fairy.
In “The Nutcracker’s” most basic storyline, a young girl named Clara, Masha in the Russian version, receives a nutcracker from her whimsical godfather on Christmas Eve, only to have it broken by her brother.
After dark, she slips from bed and finds herself under attack by the Rat King and his mice followers.
The nutcracker comes to life to protect her before being transformed into a prince.
In Act II, they travel together to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, or the Land of Peace and Harmony in the case of the Moscow Ballet’s version, a land where all the people of the world live in harmony. Dancers representing Arabia, China, Russia, France and Spain entertain the royal couple.
“ ‘The Nutcracker’ has become this artistic freedom sort of thing, where some people include the Sugar Plum Fairy and some don’t,” explains R. Douglas Smoak, the Moscow Ballet’s community coordinator in Charleston, who this year has overseen the rehearsal and integration of 96 children into the performance.
“I’ve seen versions where the Arabian dancers wear unitards and wriggle like snakes across the floor. Everybody has their own interpretation.”
A ballet for every age
In general, the Moscow Ballet’s take on “The Nutcracker” remains fairly traditional.
As early as 1919, Russian productions routinely eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy, as well as replacing the traditional child dancers in the roles of Masha and the Prince with adults.
Natalia Miroshnyk, who performs as a soloist in this year’s version as one of the Chinese dancers, confirms that in Russia, children are rarely incorporated into the ballet.
A touring member with the Moscow Ballet for five years, she enjoys bringing young local dancers into the fold in the United States.
“It’s a very good opportunity for them to get on stage with dancers who have experience,” said Miroshnyk, adding that the group brings more than 200 costumes and a tailor to personalize the outfits. “Sometimes we have over 100 children, from age 7 to 15 years old. They get to experience working with professionals.”
The Ukrainian-born Miroshnyk began practicing ballet when she was 10 years old, debuting professionally in Kiev at age 12, yet “The Nutcracker” wasn’t a regular part of her repertoire, or even at the forefront of her consciousness.
“In Russia, children know the fairy tale, but the ballet is more known in the United States. Everyone here knows ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” she exclaims.
Russian children who take up ballet often focus their attention entirely on dance. Superiority in ballet remains an integral source of national pride in the former Soviet bloc.
“It’s hard work every day, and it’s not fun sometimes, but it’s our job,” Miroshnyk said. “Children that want to be a professional dancer just do ballet: They can’t play basketball or do something else. It’s a deep part of our culture.”
Even for local coordinator Smoak, putting on “The Nutcracker” is a labor of love that requires diligent work each weekend for months leading up to the performance, training young dancers with his wife, Lori Hull, at Magnolia Dance Academy in Summerville.
“I look forward to it every year, if only to see the kids’ faces when they step into an audition. There’s this excited anticipation of dancing in ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” said Smoak, who began his own dancing career at age 9 in Moncks Corner.
He grew up to dance with the Robert Ivey Ballet before settling into a career sharing his knowledge with the next generation.
Smoak says he enjoys teaching even more than dancing, especially when he gets to show students a taste of dancing for a large, appreciative audience, an experience that the “Great Russian Nutcracker” provides.
“You can take ballet all your life and never really achieve that pinnacle of becoming a professional dancer, so to be able to perform with the Moscow Ballet, dancers with worldwide acclaim, is just something that these kids normally wouldn’t get a chance to do,” he explains, adding that the cost to students to participate is held to just $15, making it an accessible opportunity for anyone.
“It makes our young students strive to become better dancers.”
A few of the local youths in this year’s production have participated in as many as five years, progressing from “little snowflakes” into more substantial roles as their dance technique develops.
Each year, the Moscow Ballet sends Smoak video footage of that year’s updates and adaptations, giving him time to coordinate new choreography for the local troupes.
“They trust that our dancers are going to be prepared, so they give me artistic freedom,” Smoak said. “I don’t stick to the classical choreography, but I know exactly where and when the dancers need to be at what time in the music. The dancers have said before that Charleston is their favorite city on the tour because the kids are well-rehearsed, and the catered meals and Southern hospitality.”
Because the Moscow Ballet’s tour maintains a grueling schedule in a different city each night, they rely on prerecorded music of Tchaikovsky’s famous score rather than enlisting a local orchestra each night.
Although the music is familiar to most, including the opening “March,” “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” that are often used in films and television, including prominently in Disney’s “Fantasia,” the emphasis in the Moscow Ballet’s production is on the dancers.
These dancers include Cirque du Soleil veterans in some challenging roles, as well as renowned dancers Olga Kifyak and Viktor Shcherbakov in the title roles of Masha and the Nutcracker Prince.
For local dancer Smoak, the highlight is the Rat King, a role he often danced during his career, including tours of “The Nutcracker” up the East Coast.
“I always loved the Rat King for his freedom of movement, with large jumps and partnering and throwing people in the air,” said Smoak, adding that he’s also a fan of the Moscow Ballet’s acrobatic Arabian dance segment.
Most of all, though, Smoak loves “The Nutcracker” for its role in inspiring young people and the dependable holiday cheer a performance brings with it.
“It really has something for everybody,” he said. “ ‘The Nutcracker’ originated in Russian, but now it’s synonymous with Christmas.”
Photographs provided Moscow ballet dancers as snowflakes in the “Great Russian Nutcracker.”×
Sergei Chumakov and Elena Petrachenko in the Arabian Variation.×
Masha and the Nutcracker Prince (both seated) are welcomed to the Land of Peace and Harmony by Father Christmas and the Snow Maiden.×
Dancers perform the French Variation.×
Elena Petrachenko soars as a Moor Doll.×
Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrachenko×
Angels perform alongside the “Dove of Peace.”×
Nataliya Miroshnyk in the Spanish Variation.×
The nutcracker doll.×
The evil Rat King springs into action.×
The Nutcracker Prince defeats the evil Rat King.×
Dancers perform the Arabian Variation.×
Masha and the Nutcracker Prince in the Waltz of the Flowers.×
Karyna Shatkovskaya in a grand jete.×
Father Christmas and the Snow Maiden×
The Waltz of the Flowers×
Dancers perform in the party scene.×
A dancer performs in the Chinese Variation.×
Dancers perform in the Spanish Variation.×