By Kristine Bruneau | Photo By Gene O. Turner
What is so special about this holiday classic that brings audiences back year after year? RWM caught up with Rochester City Ballet’s artistic director Jamey Leverett to find out.
For the last 14 Thanksgiving weekends, the Rochester City Ballet and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) have collaborated with the Bach Children’s Chorus to bring to life one of the most popular ballets, The Nutcracker. As an iconic part of our culture, The Nutcracker is also the bread and butter for most ballet companies in America, drawing crowds and paying bills.
Rochester City Ballet, known for its precision as a contemporary ballet company, has performed The Nutcracker since its inception 25 years ago. The Nutcracker is the story of young Clara who receives a beautiful Nutcracker byfrom her godfather Drosselmeyer during a Christmas Eve party. Her jealous brother breaks the toy, but it’s magically fixed by Drosselmeyer. Later, Clara falls asleep dreaming of her brave Nutcracker prince who fights a wicked mouse king and his giant army in a fierce battle scene. Triumphant, the Nutcracker prince takes Clara on an enchanted journey through the land of ice and snow, and into the kingdom of sweets. According to Rochester City Ballet’s Jamey Leverett, The Nutcracker has been an evolution.
“The first year we performed The Nutcracker,” says Leverett who has been at the artistic helm of Rochester City Ballet since 2003, “we only staged the second act and our costumes were minimal.”
By the second year, however, Rochester City Ballet, founded by the late Timothy M. Draper, had polished the choreography, added dancers, built more vibrant costumes, added special effects, and most importantly elevated the storyline so that it could launch a complete, mouth-watering, holiday fare for the entire Rochester community to enjoy.
“When we entered into a collaboration with the RPO,” says Leverrett, “The Nutcracker was already an exceptional production.”
Together, Rochester City Ballet and the RPO pack six shows into a three-day run that involves more than 200 cast members, the youngest of whom is 5 years old.
Dozens of crew members direct the action behind the scenes from wardrobe, to suspension, and security. Both organizations finally meet with the Bach Children’s Chorus the day before Thanksgiving for two dress rehearsals since there are multiple cast members for each role.
“There’s no small role in The Nutcracker,” says Leverett. “Every part receives care, rehearsal, and character development. We follow the basic storyline, but we have interesting characters such as the Christmas Spirit, which is unique to us. Most traditional Nutcrackers don’t have this.”
With her keen eye for technique and attention to detail, Leverett has developed an extraordinary style as artistic director. She sees the entire picture, understanding exactly who her audience is and what they want.
“Every year I ask: What can we do to make The Nutcracker better?”
The Nutcracker has staying power not only because of its deep-seated holiday tradition, but because Leverett has infused a fresh and unmistakable quality to a classic ballet. There’s a reason for everything the audience sees on stage. The performance, costumes, and scenery are bridges that support and connect to create an unforgettable visual experience that children and adults will delight in and remember.
“Dancing is not enough,” says Leverett. “We must draw the audience on the stage and create an emotional connection.”
The Sugar Plum Fairy agrees. Played by 27-year-old Jessica Tretter who has performed The Nutcracker every year since she was 9 years old, the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is indeed a plumb role. For Tretter, it’s a very special honor to dance the role at this point in her career, and she admits, it’s also a bit nerve-wracking.
“Nutcracker rehearsals are pretty intense,” says Tretter. “We rehearse around 30 hours each week for 10 weeks. It’s not just dance; there’s acting, too. Many don’t realize how much acting you need to do, especially the party scene, which is very busy.”
Tretter has danced The Nutcracker in Houston, Texas where she performed 35 shows from Thanksgiving to Christmas. However, Tretter says the choreography in Rochester City Ballet’s Nutcracker is far more challenging than other ballets. It’s given her the opportunity to improve her technique and artistry.
“Dancers take more care and bring more thought into their roles,” says Tretter. “We also have more time to focus on our characters and perfect them.”
When Tretter takes the stage as Sugar Plum Fairy, she’ll look like she’s been dusted in sugar, thanks to her rhinestone-studded costume and tutu. Rochester City Ballet staff estimate that more than 15,000 rhinestones will be hand glued onto all Nutcracker costumes.
“The Nutcracker is very rich and full,” says Leverett. “It’s like going to a museum and seeing a painting on the wall. When you return another time, you notice a different color, or some texture you didn’t see at first.”
Attention to detail is what sets this production of The Nutcracker apart from the pack, and it shows. Over the past 14 years, more than 100,000 people have flocked to see The Nutcracker, and not just for the tutus.
“Even if you’ve never seen a ballet before, don’t shy away from The Nutcracker. At Kodak Hall, the music surrounds you, it penetrates your heart and fills your senses,like a magical, all-encompassing experience. You will get it. And you will fall in love with it.”
Performances of The Nutcracker will take place November 23-25 at the Kodak Hall in the Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs St. For tickets, call the RPO Box Office at 585-454-2100 or visit rpo.org