Orlando Ballet breathes new life into ‘The Nutcracker’

(Image from OrlandoBallet.org)

There are some traditions that if not followed make the season feel incomplete. Decorating for the holidays, baking delicious treats with family, exchanging presents with loved ones; and for many families one of those traditions is seeing “The Nutcracker” ballet every year.

“Everyone wants to be sent on a magical journey,” says Jorden Morris, Orlando Ballet’s artistic director. “It’s that universal attraction of adventure, dreams and imagination. If I could boil this story down to three words, those would be it. When you find a story that encapsulates all of that, that is what really creates the magic.”

“The Nutcracker” is an 1892 two-act classical ballet by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and first choreographed by Marius Petipa. It is adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 story of “The Nutcracker,” which itself is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

The story of “The Nutcracker” can vary with each production but the basic themes and plot points are the same. A young girl plays with other children during a party on Christmas Eve when her godfather, who is a talented toymaker, enters with presents for the kids, one of which is a wooden Nutcracker. After the party ends and everyone goes to bed, the young girl returns just as the clock strikes midnight and the Nutcracker grows to full size just in time to battle, with his tin soldiers at his side, the Mouse King and all of his mice minions. After defeating the Mouse King, the Nutcracker is transformed into a prince and leads the girl to the Land of Sweets, ruled over by the Sugar Plum Fairy, where a great celebration occurs.

Jorden Morris, Orlando Ballet’s artistic director. (Photo courtesy Orlando Ballet)

“The Nutcracker” is the most frequently performed ballet in the world and has been a holiday season staple in the United States since the 1960s, and for good reason. Performances each year of the timeless classic can account for as much as half of a ballet company’s total annual revenue.

As the Orlando Ballet celebrates its 50th season this year, Morris is reimagining the classic bringing in enchanting new choreography, stunning costumes, fantastical sets and some magical stage elements. The new production has been three years in the making and is a $3.5 million investment by the organization.

“The story is really the same,” Morris says. “I didn’t want to mess with what E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alexandre Dumas started, and obviously I didn’t want to mess with anything musically that our good friend Tchaikovsky did. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by snow globes and the world you could create inside of one, so that idea was the jumping off point for this new reimagined ‘Nutcracker.’”

Snow globes are featured throughout the production, from small snow globes on stage fixed with lighting effects to one with a 9-foot diameter that each of the snowflakes enter through.

“For Act 2, we turn the stage into a huge snow globe and there are even some lighting moments where the entire theater feels like we are all sitting in a giant snow globe,” Morris says.

Morris has previously worked in children’s television and children’s theater, giving him a certain amount of insight into ways to create a magical world that will have children in awe.

“With this version, the Nutcracker is a Marionette,” he says. “We’ve actually built brand new Marionettes. I’ve got a puppet master, we’ve got a special effects Nutcracker that cuts his strings and, after first slumping over, comes to life without strings using mechanics.”

The production is also incorporating puppetry and will feature small goose puppets and a larger one they call “the war goose puppet.” Even Mother Ginger is reimagined in this one.

“Mother Ginger is now Mother Goose, so she comes out as a very large goose and all The Polichinelles are her little goslings and they have little feathers on sticks that they dance with,” Morris says. “What child doesn’t love puppetry? We really expanded on the puppetry elements and the idea that it’s Christmas and these are toys and dolls. I feel like that really lent itself to the magic of it.”

Something else Morris has tackled with his re-imagined “Nutcracker,” some of the more insensitive portions when it comes to the depictions of other cultures.

“I think there were choreographers who had the best intentions when celebrating certain cultures but I don’t think they always delivered with the choreography,” Morris says. “Personally I found it a little tacky and, in this day and age, it is basically insulting what North American choreographers think is celebrating a culture.”

One such depiction is the “Chinese Dancers” scene.

“I have turned that dancer now into a heron,” Morris says. “Now she is this bird-like being with feathers under her arms and in her tutu. So rather than trying to stereotype a certain culture or a certain race of people, I’ve gone more with what was Tchaikovsky thinking about in that part of the world? and using the energy, the flora and the fauna of the region. Like using the cherry blossoms and these beautiful Asiatic birds. So I have tried to get rid of the stereotype choreography and make it a little more diverse and inclusive, celebratory of the energy of the people rather than focus on certain stereotypes.”

(Photo courtesy Orlando Ballet)

To add to the spectacle of the show, Morris also brought in some acrobatic elements as well.

“The Arabian dance that Tchaikovsky wrote, I have turned it into what is called the desert princess, and several of our dancers have learned to work on a Cyr wheel,” he says.

A Cyr wheel is a 5-foot diameter metal ring that the dancers perform and spin in.

“We have had some Cirque Du Soleil performers in helping to teach the dancers how to work with them,” Morris says, and while this year’s production will feature all female performers in the Cyr wheel, Morris says he can envision this act performed by any gender in future productions.

“As I was thinking of the evolution of ‘The Nutcracker’ and the development of this reimagined version, I asked myself what that looks like, and I think that there is room for unisex roles in a production like this,” he says.

While Morris says he is feeling the pressure of taking on the task to reimagine a beloved classic, he thinks audiences will love what they has put together.

“This show is being built to last for the next 20 years,” Morris says. “So it’s not something that we are doing a few times and if it doesn’t work out that’s great; this is going to be a financial anchor for the organization for the next 20 years, so not only do I have an immense amount of artistic pressure, I also have an immense amount of financial pressure but I believe that when audiences see this show they are going to love it as much or more than the old version.”

The world premiere of the Orlando Ballet’s re-imagined “Nutcracker” will play at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts’ Steinmetz Hall on select nights Dec. 8-24. Tickets start at $29 with VIP packages starting at $290 per seat, and are available at OrlandoBallet.org.

This feature was originally published in Watermark’s 2023 Holiday Guide. Read it online here for an LGBTQ+ look at the holiday season in Central Florida and Tampa Bay.

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