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A show in motion: Something old and new in NBT’s ‘The Nutcracker’

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Virginia Trudeau

Nevada Ballet Theater’s “The Nutcracker” is an annual holiday favorite in Las Vegas.

NBT’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Nevada Ballet Theater’s “The Nutcracker” at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. The annual performance opened Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, and continues through Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013.
Launch slideshow »

‘The Nutcracker’ Rehearsal at Smith Center

Toy soldier Paris Harman, 15, watches rehearsal for Nevada Ballet Theater’s “The Nutcracker” at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. The annual performance opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 22.
Launch slideshow »

An artistic director, technical director and scenic consultant sit around a table, their eyes fixed to a quarter-inch scale model of the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall stage. It might sound like the beginning of a joke, but this meeting is anything but. In fact, it is marathon meetings like this one — a very long seven hours — that ultimately decide what audiences will see when Nevada Ballet Theater’s “The Nutcracker” opens on Saturday and continues through Dec. 21.

James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director, moves a tiny model of the Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls closer to a miniature dollhouse — mere inches in height in this scenario but four stories high in actuality. Canfield, along with “The Nutcracker’s” technical director, Tim Sage, and Michele Anderson, a scenic consultant for this year’s production, discuss the consequences of moving this prop in this way at this point in the show.

Will it hinder the dancers’ movement? How will it move to this position, and will there be a storage issue when it leaves the stage? Are there any unwanted shadows that could result from lighting this part of the stage during this divertissement?

And so the conversation goes — one movement, one prop, one dancer, one moment at a time — as Canfield, Sage and Anderson walk through every step of Las Vegas’ version of “The Nutcracker” on this miniature stage.

They’re discussing Act II, which chronicles the dream sequence of Clara, a young girl and the main character of the show, who brings the Nutcracker to life in her imagination. Throughout Act II, Clara’s dream shifts and moves through a series of dances — from the Spanish-themed piece to Clara and her Prince (known as “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Cavalier” in other productions) — and the audience moves with her smoothly from one divertissement to another.

Clara’s dream sequence shifts and evolves, always changing, very much like NBT’s production of “The Nutcracker” itself. Now in its third year of a 10-year production cycle, it is a clear reflection of the original production and a drastic departure as it continues to evolve, embracing opportunities to become a leaner but more artistically interesting show.

In the fall of 2012, Blue Line Studios in Las Vegas made a major announcement from NBT. On that day, Canfield revealed elements of a production of “The Nutcracker” that Las Vegas could call all its own. Among these features was a massive dollhouse with several rooms that would turn throughout the show as scenes changed.

“This is something that was always expected to be a larger-than-life production, especially because this whole show is seen through the eyes of a child,” Sage says.

The dollhouse is no exception. It has nine rooms, each of which was engineered to hold three to five dancers at a time, and the entire piece was designed to rotate during the show’s battle scene. As a result, this set element was built more like an actual house on wheels than stage scenery because the structural integrity had to withstand weight and fatigue on the walls from rotating it.

It weighs 8,000 pounds and requires physical manpower from crewmembers and mechanical engineering techniques to move it around the stage. Canfield’s vision for the show with this dollhouse was big and bold, much like Las Vegas itself.

“My dream is that people want to come to Las Vegas to see our ‘Nutcracker’ because it’s epic scale,” he says. The vision of his bigger-than-life production came to fruition onstage in 2012. A toy doll came to life, and dancers flooded the stage in bejeweled costumes, moving from the lively party scene into the action-packed battle scene, then drifting through the snow and dream sequences to reach the finale.

It was a creative show, different than how most productions of “The Nutcracker” are performed, but, Canfield says, there were unforeseen issues the ballet company encountered. In an effort to maintain the integrity of Canfield’s artistic vision, some components of “The Nutcracker” were burdensome during the first season, least of which was the massive dollhouse, which had to be moved in mere moments as music continued to play while the lights were dimmed during scene changes.

'The Nutcracker' 2012

Steven Goforth and Alissa Dale perform as the Snow Prince and Winter Fairy during a dress rehearsal for Nevada Ballet Theater's Launch slideshow »

'The Nutcracker' Rehearsal

Dancers rehearse Nevada Ballet Theatre's Launch slideshow »

Any new show has hiccups, but “The Nutcracker” also had the challenges of practicing in the company’s dance studio instead of onstage and loading in the Smith Center days before opening. Some problems were addressed days and even hours before the first performance.

Though “The Nutcracker’s” first year was well received, the 2013 show was used to work out kinks, namely with the heavy, unwieldy dollhouse. “In the second year, we were able to move the set pieces faster, but we still weren’t quite happy with how some of the scene changes occurred,” Sage says. When the curtain dropped at the end of 2013, Canfield and his team were already thinking about what they could do to improve in 2014.

Live performances are in a constant state of flux, and, prepping for this year’s show, Canfield and Sage found themselves huddled around the model of the Smith Center stage with Anderson, who has been brought on board to view the show from a fresh perspective.

“This is a performing art, and it should evolve,” Canfield says. “It should be modified to specifications that meet the demands of the magic, yet not take away from the experience.”

In 2012, the goal was to get the show up-and-running, and in 2013 perfecting Act I. Modifying the dollhouse is one of the major focuses for the creative team this season. Its size and bulk have created clunky moments in an otherwise smooth show, but this year the dollhouse will be trimmed down by about 4,500 pounds and become a stationery set piece.

This means blackouts will be kept to a minimum so audience members can seamlessly travel with Clara from one dream scene to the next. “Transporting our audiences magically through ‘The Nutcracker’ story and maintaining the integrity of the overall design and visual elements is our No. 1 responsibility,” Anderson says.

Additionally, other large set pieces are being modified so they can fly or be placed on dollies for quick placement onstage and off. Artistic use of stage curtains and drapery will help elements appear and disappear as if by magic. “Each transition is different, so it’s a different piece of magic every time we transition into a new scene,” Anderson says.

Behind-the-Scenes at 'The Nutcracker'

Dancers wait to enter the stage during the opening matinee performance of Launch slideshow »

Holly Madison Backstage at 'The Nutcracker'

Jaime Gallagher and Holly Madison backstage after her cameo in Nevada Ballet Theatre's Launch slideshow »

With two years under their belts, Canfield and Sage knew what to expect when they loaded in Monday, and Reynolds Hall will finally be fully used by the production team. Modifying the dollhouse into a lighter, more manageable set piece also means that the 2,300 technical hours from load-in to load-out will likely be reduced significantly, which means dancers have more time to rehearse with the set onstage and crewmembers will be able to spend Christmas Eve with their families instead of loading out the set.

While these technical modifications are designed to produce lighter, more versatile elements requiring less labor, there will be artistic changes, as well. At NBT’s campus, Canfield noted an intricately designed headpiece with 600 jewels that one of the 14 snow maidens will wear during the snow scene in Act I.

“That’s just one part of one costume,” he says, emphasizing the amount of hours that go into “The Nutcracker” and how dedicated the crew is to creating the most visually impressive show that donor dollars can afford.

Around 100 dancers — including nearly 60 students — are in this year’s production, and many of them are new to the show or danced in different roles last year. “Some of these kids have been with the production for three years now, and we want to keep them interested,” Canfield says. “As the show is evolving, so is the dancing.”

Playing to the strengths of those in the main roles requires modified choreography and fresh costumes. “Would you wear the same thing to the same party the following year?” Canfield asks, laughing as he points out some of the details on the costumes debuting this year, including hand-painted dresses, bodices that must be laced up by hand and paper-thin tutus that seem to float in mid-air. “Our designer knows how to make a costume musical,” he says.

Also new this year: The professional dance company will perform the battle scene, and Mother Ginger will look different than in past years. Changes have been made to the Spanish and Russian divertissements. Astute fans of Las Vegas’ production of “The Nutcracker” also will notice there are new prop elements in the Act II divertissements, and elements that appear early in the show reappear. “The way we’re going to transition in front of the audience’s eyes is very cool,” Canfield says. “They’re just simple little things that take it that much further.”

Despite the modifications, they are all meant to create a more fluid, magical experience for audience members while maintaining — and even enhancing — the artistic vision laid out in 2012. And even though Canfield, Sage and Anderson won’t divulge the nitty-gritty details about what exactly “The Nutcracker” will look like this season, all are enthusiastically optimistic. “I think, going into the third year, we’re finally coming to that climatic point of that vision becoming a reality,” Sage says.

That’s certainly not to say that, when the final curtain falls on Dec. 21, Canfield won’t already be thinking about how to adjust the show for 2015. “I think it’s fair to say that, with something this big, it will always be a work in progress,” he says. “When I go into the show this year, I’ll be thinking about next year because that’s all I did last year.”

JoAnna Haugen is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.

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