Imagination Abounds in Two New Nutcracker Productions

December 8, 2023

’Tis the season for Nutcracker, and that includes new productions. This month, Milwaukee Ballet and Orlando Ballet each present world premieres that reimagine the holiday ballet’s magical journey with a mix of tradition, cultural sensitivity, and imagination.

Milwaukee Ballet

Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink reconceptualizes his 2003 The Nutcracker with his new The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer’s Imaginarium. With his new production, Pink set out to solve an issue he’s long had with Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet: its second act.

“In Act I, you are given a very clear narrative in the music,” says Pink. “By the first divertissement of Act II, we are now in a different show.”

Pink saw a discontinuity in the ballet’s two acts that affected its pacing and the central characters’ journey. He sought to address that by creating the motif of a door into one’s imagination that Drosselmeyer opens with his magic.

“We want to stimulate the audience’s imagination so they become a part of this journey with us,” says Pink.

The ballet’s first act, including its main characters, is taken from the 2003 production, with the party scene now set in a glass atrium. The new production continues the journey begun there by central characters Clara, Fritz, elder sister Marie, and Drosselmeyer’s nephew Karl throughout the two-hour ballet.

  • A sketch on paper with pen and watercolor rendering a new Flower costume.
  • A sketch on paper with pen and watercolor rendering a new Snow Queen costume.
  • Backstage, stagehands and designers work on creating a large blue structure with pink decorative accents
  • Backstage, stagehands and artists work on painting a massive cloudscape backdrop.

“There is no sitting back and watching others work,” says Pink. “Every scene in the second act, either Clara, Fritz, Marie, or Karl is dancing.”

The ballet is performed to a slightly modified version of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, played live by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. “I’ve taken all the dead air out of the show and added transition music from one scene into the other in the second act to keep it moving,” says Pink. 

He has also addressed problematic scenes contained in many traditional versions.

“This was a great opportunity for me to do what the story wanted me to do, which is not to say, ‘I am going to go and dance with a Spanish, Arabian, or Chinese person; I am instead going to wondrous places in the Imaginarium,’ ” says Pink.

The “Arabian” scene now becomes an oasis with a floating ribbon entwining a pas de deux couple, and the “Chinese” dance features a large lion and a phoenix referencing Chinese mythology.

New fanciful sets and costumes add to the production’s magic. The effect is orchestrated throughout by Drosselmeyer in what Pink calls “a seemingly endless supply of magic dust that he spreads to bring imagination to life.”

December 8–26, 2023, at Milwaukee’s Marcus Performing Arts Center.

Orlando Ballet

Artistic director Jorden Morris’ new $3.6 million (intended as a 20-year investment) production of The Nutcracker, the jewel in Orlando Ballet’s 50th-anniversary season, is a mix of tradition and invention. Morris has introduced entirely new elements to create a ballet for the company’s future.

Set between 1910 and 1915, the ballet has an opening party scene that Morris says is reminiscent of the hit television series Downton Abbey.

“Moving the usual time period from the late 1800s, with its heavy dresses and huge bustles, to a period when fashion was becoming more formfitting lent itself more to a dancer’s body and costuming that the dancers feel good performing in,” says Morris.

The ballet’s storyline follows ETA Hoffmann’s and Alexandre Dumas’ Nutcracker tales, says Morris, and focuses on Clara’s adventure. In reenvisioning that adventure, Morris looked to his own past for inspiration. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated with snow globes, and I wanted them to be a part of this production,” he says.

Snow globes of all sizes are found throughout the ballet, and Morris has even framed Clara’s post–party-scene dream journey to take place inside a life-size one. At one moment, the lighting design makes audience members feel as though they are inside the globe as well.

  • A sketch on paper in pen and watercolor shows for the design for a new Flower costume.
  • A sketch on paper in pen and watercolor shows for the design for a new Heron costume.
  • A sketch on paper in pen and watercolor shows for the design for a new Desert Princess costume.
  • A sketch on paper in pen and watercolor shows for the design for a new Drosselmeyer costume.
  • A sketch on paper in pen and watercolor shows for the design for new Party Scene women's costumes.

Morris also takes a child-friendly approach to Drosselmeyer. Rather than a mysterious sorcerer, Morris envisions him more like Geppetto, from Pinocchio; he is the town’s toymaker that everyone knows and loves.

Morris also collaborated with Disney’s puppeteers to bring new puppets to life throughout the production, and the character of Mother Ginger is now Mother Goose.

As with many new Nutcracker productions, Morris was mindful of past cultural insensitivity associated with the ballet.

“I think that choreographers had the best intentions at the turn of the [20th] century,” says Morris. “But in their attempts to celebrate certain societies, they did a disservice to them with the choreography they chose to represent those cultures.”

Morris says he wanted to go a bit broader with what we typically envision for those scenes’ music. For Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian” music, Morris created a Cyr-wheel dance for the new desert prince and princess characters, and, for the “Chinese” variation, he turned the scene into a pas de deux between Drosselmeyer and a heron. Broadly, says Morris, “birds are respected and revered in Asian cultures.”

Finally, as it is Clara’s adventure, she is no spectator to it and dances a lot in the ballet, says Morris. She performs the snow pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince, fights the Mouse King, and dances throughout Act II.  

December 8–24, 2023, at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center.