Milwaukee Ballet's History of The Nutcracker
by Jenny Chataigne
In its forty years, Milwaukee Ballet has grown tremendously, especially in its annual performance of The Nutcracker. In its humble beginnings The Nutcracker was a second act excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s familiar score. The dancers struggled into their newly designed but still unfinished costumes on opening night. Today the Ballet has come a long way—Artistic Director Michael Pink’s interpretation of The Nutcracker is a blockbuster spectacle with 132 costumes and over 300 costume fittings.
Much of The Nutcracker’s development is from Michael Pink’s vision. Known for putting his own twist on classical stories, Pink has shifted the Ballet’s production to a traditional version. Though only Milwaukee Ballet’s fifth choergraphic version of The Nutcracker, Michael Pink has enhanced the story with new characters. In addition to Clara, Pink brings her siblings Marie and Fritz who join her in this magical dream. Similarly, Pink has made Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Karl, magically transform into the Nutcracker Prince. Striving to expand upon Milwaukee Ballet’s outreach efforts, Pink’s version includes children from the nationally accredited Milwaukee Ballet School, and young singers from the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.
With such changes, ardent ballet fans may be cautious, but need not be. Mary Belle Potter, Milwaukee Ballet costume mistress, said, “This version of The Nutcracker is probably the best we’ve ever had.” Having been with Milwaukee Ballet since its beginnings, she knows. She continues, “There’s more dancing.”
The characters and dancing are not the only changes that have been made to The Nutcracker. Costumes and sets have evolved drastically over the years. Milwaukee Ballet’s first attempt at the second act of The Nutcracker resulted in near disaster. According to Mary Belle Potter, “The dancers playing the roles of the flowers had to be pinned into their costumes opening night because they weren’t finished.” Luckily versions in the mid-seventies and Milwaukee Ballet’s short-lived partnership with the Philadelphia Ballet did not have those problems. However, the Ballet was not able to redesign its costumes or sets for more than 20 years.
In 1998 Milwaukee Ballet premiered its new production of The Nutcracker, thanks to a $1 million donation from the Joan, Jack and Victor Stein Foundation, the largest donation the Ballet had ever received in its history at the time. The costumes took over seven months to build and more than a dozen seamstresses to complete.
Though the costumes and set are now more than a decade old, the magic of The Nutcracker has not faded, but up-keep has accelerated. With 132 costumes and over 300 hundred fittings, the holiday season proves to be a lot of work for Milwaukee Ballet’s costume manager, Mary Piering. She said, “The costumes are showing their age. Some of the mice are growing bald.” This still does not slow or stress Mary Piering and her shop workers; they still see the magic in The Nutcracker.
Jenny Chataigne is a senior at Marquette University and is interning with Milwaukee Ballet's marketing department.