I've often wondered about the popularity of traditions and why it is that people never tire of doing the same thing, again and again, year after year. Perhaps the simplicity of it reassures us, or perhaps we're just not quite sure what else to do.
Growing up, my family always erected and decorated our Christmas tree the evening after Thanksgiving. Closer to Christmas day, we'd troll the city for lit-up neighborhoods and ooh and aah from the comfort of our heated car as we crept by the brightly decorated homes. And then there's the annual holiday trip to Branson, MO., which, during my teenage years I found horribly embarrassing but which I now find myself looking forward to every year, beginning in summer.
Since I've been out of my parents' house, I've found myself carrying on some of the traditions with which I grew up, while also starting my own. I still decorate the tree the day after Thanksgiving, I still drive through area neighborhoods at night to gawk at the lights, but I also incorporate some local art into my holiday traditions.
Every year, for the past three or so years, I've attended productions of A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, whatever wacky show the Nightingale Theater is putting on and, usually on a Sunday afternoon, Tulsa Ballet's The Nutcracker.
I really thought, after the first couple of years, I would tire of one or all of these shows. How many times can you watch a toy soldier and a mouse king battle it out before you decide enough is enough? I'm really not sure, but I definitely haven't reached that point, and neither have most Tulsans.
Like a Dream
Tulsa Ballet has been producing The Nutcracker for the past 52 years, performing artistic director Marcello Angelini's choreography for the past six.
When asked why he thinks The Nutcracker is such a timeless production, Angelini said, "No other theatre production embodies the spirit of Christmas like The Nutcracker. Think about it: What does Christmas represent? In my opinion, it symbolizes the goodness, generosity, purity and hope of the human spirit."
The Nutcracker, set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is an adaptation of the story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by E.T.A. Hoffman.
The story follows a young girl, Clara, who falls asleep after receiving a nutcracker doll as a Christmas gift. She dreams her nutcracker prince is being attacked by a mouse king and his mouse soldiers. The nutcracker, along with his band of nutcracker soldiers, defeats the mouse king, and he and Clara take a romantic journey together. When she wakes, Clara wonders whether she was really dreaming at all.
"The Nutcracker talks about the struggle of a young maiden to save her beloved prince, risking her life in the process," Angelini explained. "Through this struggle, she grows and matures.
"Interestingly enough, the prince is trapped in an unattractive body, but she doesn't see that. True love goes beyond superficial appearance.
If you love with all your being, you will find immeasurable beauty in the subject of your affection as you can see past appearances.
"Thus, once the mask goes down, or once you pass the boundaries of exterior looks, she discovers the most handsome prince. This story is seen through the eyes of a very pure soul, someone that believes in the most uncontaminated form of love. And this is what Christmas is all about: unconditional love and the ability to generously give ourselves to whomever is in need of our support and help," said Angelini.
Learning from the Best
TB has performed Angelini's more contemporary version of The Nutcracker for the past six years, and Angelini said the company has seen its audience grow in the last three. While Angelini said he will likely never re-choreograph The Nutcracker, he said his company will, when the time is right to introduce a new version to Tulsa audiences.
"The only Nutcracker that can survive for over 30 years is that of Mr. (Roman) Jasinski," said Angelini. "If mine survives 10 years, I'll be flattered."
This year, the principal roles are performed by Karina Gonzales and Alfonso Martin (who danced the roles of Clara and the Nutcracker last year) in one cast and Ashley Blade-Martin and Wang Yi in the other.
"The lead male role was created for Alfonso, but Wang is doing a phenomenal job catching up to him," Angelini said. "As for the ladies, they are very different but both look fabulous."
A major part of TB's Nutcracker production is the chorus of children who perform the roles of mouse and nutcracker soldiers. Auditions for the production are open to all children taking dance classes in the Tulsa community.
Because they perform with professional dancers, and not a community company, Angelini said the children are expected to perform as well as the professional dancers do.
"While community performances are just plain fun, there is nothing in the world like sharing the stage with a cast of top specialists that come from all over the world," Angelini said. "It's a formative experience, one that will set the standards of excellence for those kids for the rest of their lives, whether they become dancers or not.
"The air on stage during performances is filled with electricity as our dancers make use of years of training and months of rehearsals for this work. Their commitment to success, their standards of excellence and their unrelenting drive to make every performance better then the one before, teaches the students about the standards needed to succeed in life."
While ballet companies across the country struggle to maintain ticket sales in a struggling economy and with new competition entering the market every year, Angelini said Tulsa audiences have remained fiercely loyal to the Tulsa Ballet and to its production of The Nutcracker. At the time of this interview, the show's ticket sales exceeded numbers last year, even with unprecedented competition in the form of Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the BOK Center.
And while Angelini said this year's Nutcracker performance holds nothing unexpected, "every performance is special."
"The ballet has stunning visuals, fast-paced choreography and exciting dances. So, (there is) nothing unexpected, but very high expectations for every show. And we won't disappoint," Angelini said.
Performances are December 13-14 and 18-21 at the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. Evening performances begin at 7pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$55. For more information, visit tulsaballet.org or tulsapac.com.
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