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The Nutcracker ... Again?

The ins and outs of this must-do ballet


Somehow the holiday season never fails to creep up on me, and when it does, my love/hate relationship with tradition is reborn. As is my love/hate relationship with The Nutcracker--that great ballet whose familiarity is as comforting as it is redundant. As a dancer myself, I have seen and participated in my fair share of Nutcrackers and my conflicted attitude is one I have heard many other dancers express. So what keeps the audiences coming back when the performers themselves have their eye-rolling moments? What is it about The Nutcracker that makes it special year after year? More importantly--why should this weekend's performances not be missed? Because, explains Karla Bodnar, executive director of Ballet Idaho, "The Nutcracker is the universal language of ballet; it is part of American art culture and a holiday tradition."

Every year and every performance (even within the same season) are different due to alternating cast members. In this year's Ballet Idaho production, three couples perform the lead roles of the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier, and Neysa Fulsome portrays Clara for the first time. Bodnar emphasizes the importance of this perpetual swap, "You could go every night and it would still be a unique experience as each artist interprets the role differently, which changes the energy and interaction of the dancers with the audience." "It's the nuances that tend to be different--because no show is identical," reiterates principal dancer Jennifer Martin. "You never know when someone is going to fall, or likewise when you're about to do something miraculous like a million turns."

Having a record number of children participating in this year's Nutcracker production shakes things up a bit as well. Over 230 kids auditioned and 152 were chosen, as compared to (only) 116 in 2003. Add to these numbers the entire Children's Opera Chorus, the 90 members of the Boise Philharmonic, and of course, the 22 professional dancers.

The set musical score and story might be thought to restrict the production's choreography, but no one understands the need to stay away from monotony as well as Ballet Idaho's artistic director Toni Pimble. According to Bodnar, "Toni is so creative, she manages to make fresh what is over a hundred years old."

The first Nutcracker was presented in Russia circa 1892, though the first American production did not premiere until 1940 and again in its entirety in 1944. Enjoyment of such a "luxury" during wartime is actually not that unusual. Similar to the boom in movie sales during that historical crisis, ballet fulfilled a deep public need for escapism--a chance to forget our troubles for a few brief hours. Ballet Idaho recognizes that this need is still relevant and has subsequently organized free tickets to Sunday's show for families with relatives deployed in the military, thanks to sponsors Keybank and Christian Zimmerman, M.D. (Families may request tickets by calling 422-4361, and donations may be made by calling 343-0556.)

The greater Boise community doesn't likely realize the high level of talent in Ballet Idaho. Of all the companies nationwide, only 43 have operating budgets over $2 million per year, nine of which are in California and New York, and one of which is our very own Ballet Idaho. In other words: Boise's Ballet Idaho attracts extremely talented dancers from all over the states and the world--as far away as Venezuela, Spain, Korea, Russia and Germany.

Like it or not, the success or failure of a ballet company's Nutcracker can significantly impact its financial standing. "The effect would not be seen on stage for the remainder of the year, but behind the scenes," Bodnar says. So it comes as no surprise that Ballet Idaho is deeply grateful for the community turnout and support for The Nutcracker, year after year. No matter how many times a dancer has heard "The Waltz of the Flowers," there is an underlying obligation to make every performance unique. "Every dancer goes through that period of pessimism and monotony. But if you let the audience know this is your 36th time performing, it ruins it for them. Every venue is important and company members have to project that to the audience as this is their special holiday night," Martin says.

"When the dancers step onto the stage and feel the energy of the kids participating, it is new every time. The children are the heart and soul of The Nutcracker," Bodnar adds. This point is incredibly valid, as no professional ballet dancer has ever escaped early experience in The Nutcracker, and thus it is a shared lifeline throughout this particular artistic community. Being involved as a child provides the dreamscape of imagining yourself as the star someday. "I never thought I would get this far," Martin recalls. "I look back and I was the kid with gangly legs and turned in knees. Some teachers said I would never make it. I tell parents now: 'It is entirely up to your child. If you want it badly enough, you will have it. If you don't, you won't. It's that simple.'" As a lead principal with Ballet Idaho for the past 11 years, Martin's words guide Boise's baby ballerinas. "The stories parents tell me of how happy dance makes their child and how grateful they are for them to have such a positive outlet, that's the special part," she continues.

When initially queried about the importance of this ballet, Bodnar definitively answered by posing the provocative question, "What would Christmas be without The Nutcracker?" If ballet companies worldwide just decided, "Eh, not this year," the void would affect many more individuals than appearances suggest--everyone from artists to audiences to star struck children, mixed in with those that simply need a reprieve from day to day life.

Ballet Idaho's performs The Nutcracker:

• Thursday, December 9, 7:30 p.m., Jewett Auditorium, Albertson College campus, Caldwell.

• Saturday, December 11, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., $9-$39, Morrison Center, Boise State campus.

Sunday, December 12, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., $9-$39, Morrison Center, Boise State campus.

Tickets at 426-1494 or