Behind the Footlights: Visions of Sugar Plums—George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Pennsylvania Ballet

Alex Hughes and Ian Hussey in The Nutcracker. Photo: Nic D'Amico

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is family time, a time for food, fun, and love. It is a season full of traditions. For as long as I can remember, one of these in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual presentation of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. And this year is no exception. Performances will run at the Academy of Music from December 8—31, 2017. There will be a number of matinees, as well as evening performances; there will also be special events, such as Tea With The Sugar Plum Fairy throughout the run of performances. Visit the Ballet’s website for further information:

Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker libretto is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", by way of Alexandre Dumas' adapted story "The Nutcracker." The ballet premiered on December 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Tchaikovsky's score has become one of his most famous compositions, in particular, the pieces featured in The Nutcracker suite. In 1954, George Balanchine choreographed a version for the New York City Ballet that has achieved worldwide success. To flesh out the piece, Balanchine added an “entr'acte” that Tchaikovsky composed for Act II of The Sleeping Beauty, but which is now seldom played in productions of that ballet. His choreography is now the primary version performed.

PA Ballet Principal Dancer Ian Hussey and Former Principal Dancer Amy Aldridge in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker Photo: Alexander Iziliaev
Delaware County Magazine recently spoke with three of the dancers in the PA Ballet Company who will be appearing in this year’s production: Ian Hussey (a long-time principal dancer), Alexandra Hughes (recently promoted to soloist) and Sydney Dolan (a 16-year-old Company apprentice). Mr. Hussey became a part of the corps de ballet in 2007 and has danced most of the male roles in The Nutcracker—his first production with the PA Ballet was in 1998. He approaches each season’s production as something new and fresh, and since some of the cast shifts each year, it is a little different every time. When asked what his favorite part of the ballet is, he responded: “…after the battle scene, the Nutcracker's costume is ripped off and it is revealed that the young nephew, who Marie had met earlier in the night, is actually the Nutcracker Prince. It is a beautiful moment that celebrates the innocence of young romance and the magic of one girl’s dreams coming to life. The music is stunningly beautiful at this moment as well.”

PA Ballet Soloist Alexandra Hughes in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev
Ms. Hughes joined the PA Ballet as an apprentice in 2011, was advanced to the corps de ballet in 2012 and is now a soloist as of this season. She told us the most challenging part of being a soloist is getting to work on and dance a variety of featured roles. “I have a feeling that I might have fewer rehearsal hours but that the rehearsals I do have will be rigorous.” Here’s her answer to the question about her favorite portion of The Nutcracker: “My favorite roles are Dew Drop and Sugar Plum Fairy. Dew Drop is the queen of the flowers and the role is very technically difficult with lots of turns, jumps and dynamic musicality. I think that combination makes it an extremely fun and rewarding role to perform. Sugar Plum Fairy is the queen of the entire Land of the Sweets and her variation and pas de deux is also very fun to perform. It's always nice to dance with a partner on stage and get to feed off of each other's energy. The role itself is very regal and elegant—which makes it a fun but a different role than that of Dew Drop.”

PA Ballet Apprentices Sydney Dolan and Austin Eyler rehearsing. Photo: Vikki Sloviter
Ms. Dolan started her ballet training at age three in N. Carolina, has won several dance competitions and became an apprentice with the PA Ballet last season. “As a dancer, my main goal is to inspire and bring happiness to others as well as myself; which has also been the reason that I love to dance.”  She had never seen The Nutcracker danced live before joining the cast, but “there is a famous movie that I watched on repeat when I was a kid. The movie was George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® made into a movie. It was a big deal because Macaulay Culkin was starring as the Nutcracker Prince.”  When asked about her favorite part of the ballet, she told us: “…the Snow Scene. I never grew an appreciation for it until I performed Snow Corps for the first time last season… It is a very hard piece to dance but wearing the costume, the lights, the live music and chorus, and the snow falling makes it such a magical experience!”

All three dancers said the performances of The Nutcracker are their favorite time of the season, and they love the joy they bring to families as audiences are drawn into the magic of the production. Mr. Hussey summed it up best when we asked what brings viewers back each year: “The Nutcracker is a wonderful holiday tradition for the whole family that displays the magic of a child's dreams as well as the beauty and splendor of the dancing in the Land of Sweets!”

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is a classic ballet that has held audiences spellbound for decades. “Giant mice, dancing snowflakes, a growing Christmas tree, and an enchanted nutcracker are sure to delight the inner child in everyone.” In addition to the talented dancers, there is a fabulous live orchestra, beautiful costumes, and amazing sets. So, take the family to the Academy of Music to visit the “Land of Sweets”—you’ll be enchanted. If You Go: The Academy of Music is located at 240 S. Broad St in Philadelphia, PA 19102. The Box Office can be reached at 215-893-1999. There is a wealth of information on the company’s website: If you scroll down on the home page, you’ll see a link to “Planning Your Visit.” 

Snow scene from PA Ballet's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev


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