Michigan Opera Theatre

The Nutcracker: Leaping Away From (and Toward) Holiday Tradition, with Victoria Morgan

By Michael Yashinsky
The Nutcracker

Sleeping with your pajamas inside out and a spoon under your pillow to summon a snow day. Braving icy streets to hunt out houses with the wildest tableaux of twinkling lights and incandescent reindeer. Bundling up to take in America's Thanksgiving Parade, with the much-anticipated cameo from Santa Claus at its finish, the mayor himself presenting the old fellow with the "key to the hearts of all the good little boys and girls in Detroit." Such are the traditions of holiday-time in the Motor City! And so, too, is attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Detroit Opera House.

This year's offering is the Detroit premiere of the Cincinnati Ballet’s sparkling production that thrilled Kennedy Center audiences last year. It is replete with dazzling technical effects, whimsical costumes, and cartoon-colored sets, which frame the playful choreography (see the hip-hoppity mice) of longtime dancer Victoria Morgan, the company's artistic director, CEO, and affectionately nicknamed "Ballerina Boss."

The Nutcracker has been a holiday tradition throughout the country since 1944, when the 1892 work received its first full performance in America, as choreographed by William Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet. Morgan first performed in the piece as an eight-year-old, under the direction of Christensen himself, and the annual tradition of the ballet has played an important role in her life and career ever since. She now has more than 20 seasons with the Cincinnati Ballet under her belt, and rich stores of Nutcracker tradition in her heart.

In an interview with MOT, Morgan shared how she balances her sincere love for that tradition with the desire to offer audiences and dancers alike a new look at the classic ballet.

How The Nutcracker marks the moments of a dancer's maturation

The Nutcracker gives you the chance, as a child, to evolve and grow into different roles as the years go on. You sort of have this fantasy, "Oh, maybe someday I'll get to be in the party scene." And then you get there and you think, "Oh wow, maybe someday I'll be a mirliton [the characters typically dressed as shepherds, named for the reed flutes they play]." And then you get there and you think, "Maybe I'll actually get to do Spanish [perform as one of the Spanish dancers in an Act II divertissement]." Then "Oh, maybe I'll be the Sugarplum Fairy!"

It's such a part of your life in the ballet world. And since it happens every year, it gives me the opportunity as an artistic director to gauge the progress of my dancers—watch them take on increasingly difficult parts, watch their artistry, and see how they grow.

Her favorite moments of Tchaikovsky's score

I love when the tree is growing and it gets to the top, with this climax in the music. It's interesting to me that I find myself thinking of a part where there's literally no dancing—ironic! But that is such an exciting moment. The other part for me is the "Waltz of the Flowers," which is so beautiful. It's so danceable and waltz-y. It's joyous. I just love it, every time we come back to it. I danced it years ago. But when I choreographed it, I heard certain phrases and a little bit of flute, and strings, and noticed accents in different places. I could hear more detail because I was so focused on it. Of course you hear the music when you're dancing. But choreographing it deepened my understanding of it.

The approach to choreographing a ballet that has become such a well-known friend

It's impossible not to draw on what you've been in and what you've seen. Part of the process is trying to run away from those things. But in the long run, you realize that the evolution of certain decisions makes sense. So sometimes I fought against the tradition, and at other times I think I was comforted by it and relieved to have a tradition to fall back on, and a very challenging and exciting tradition. Not one that makes you say, "Oh, I hate this tradition!" A really wonderful tradition. A nice challenge.

William Christensen's version was the one locked in my head, because I learned it when I was a kid. And you know, it's like a language, you almost can't forget it. But I did think I have to develop some new, unique characters. Like our "mirlipoos," instead of mirlitons. I have to tell you, in devising their movement, I was inspired by my very own French poodle, Teddy Mo. And I love that little section, the ensemble of dancing poodles—it's my pride and joy.

The need to laugh

I wanted it to have a sense of humor. Sometimes our art form is so serious. The Nutcracker is glorious, and it's very intense dancing, and it's taken very seriously. But I also feel that almost because of that, it's important to maintain a certain lightness and sense of humor. I hired a magician who helped us with some tricks. And I wanted something to keep the series of variations in Act II light, where there's one after another and it can be difficult to stay with it. So we have an intrigue, where the two women are after the Arabian dancer, and he's a little nervous about it, trying to get away from them. I try to keep it light and at the same time incorporate challenging technique.

The quiet poetry of the moonlit snowfall that ends Act I

Many have said that our snow scene is the most gorgeous they've ever seen. It's whimsical. You see layers and layers of snow. Like you'd see it outside, snow building up on top of itself.  It's gentle, in a way. It has a fragile feeling. You know how snowflakes are so delicate? You can almost see through them. You know how fog gets? How it's sort of magical? The scene has that look and feel about it. It's so beautiful. I can't wait for you to see it.

As Morgan embarks on another year with The Nutcracker, some will be experiencing the magic of the ballet for the very first time, whether as patrons or performers. In Detroit, around 80 local children will be dancing onstage with the Cincinnati Ballet. Sometimes they will be young revelers in the party scene, at other times toy soldiers. In the Land of the Sweets, they are prancing cupcakes. In this way, a new generation enters the golden-buttoned ranks of Nutcracker-philes, joining all the young and young at heart watching them from the audience. A holiday tradition marches on, to be newly examined, embraced, or enlivened by those who hold it dear.

For more information visit michiganopera.org