Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker puts a Canadian twist on the classic

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For Vancouverites who are despondent about the NHL lockout, André Lewis has a suggestion: come and see Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker when it hits town next weekend. There’s a hockey game in it. And that’s just one of the Canadian touches that distinguishes the company’s version of the holiday classic from all others.

“It doesn’t look like the hockey players are going to be going back anytime soon, so with the NHL on strike I’m saying to people, ‘Hey, maybe come and see our little hockey game,’ ” Lewis, the RWB’s affable artistic director, says on the line from his office. “I’m trying to get some of the Winnipeg Jets players out. It’s a short scene in the ballet, but how Canadian is that—kids playing hockey on an outdoor rink?”

Choreographed by Galina Yor-danova and Nina Menon, the Canadian-themed Nutcracker also features Mounties, Hudson’s Bay blankets, and a battle on Parliament Hill. The production premiered in Ottawa in 1999, which was the last time RWB brought it to Vancouver. Over the years, Ballet B.C. has presented various takes on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, including one by the Moscow Ballet and a coproduction with Alberta Ballet. Prior to launching its current Nutcracker, the RWB spent years touring John Neumeier’s version, which was set in Germany and stripped away the Yuletide theme, including the famous growing Christmas tree, in favour of a nondenominational telling of a girl’s birthday party.

Lewis admits the Neumeier production struggled somewhat because people missed traditional elements like the dancing mice. He wanted to stay true to the Christmas traditions that made the ballet so popular in the first place, while taking it in a new direction. It’s now set in a house on Winnipeg’s Wellington Crescent in December 1913, all snowy and sparkly.

“I wanted to show some of the traditions of how we [Canadians] celebrate,” Lewis explains. “Having a Canadian touch to it made a lot of sense to me. People connect with it. Instead of just watching a spectacle, people feel like they’re part of the show. That enhances the experience and brings the emotions to the fore, and that’s what art is all about—giving people a chance to grow as a human being.”

Performing alongside RWB dancers are 70 students from dance schools throughout Metro Vancouver, including Arts Umbrella, Richmond’s Arts Connection, North Vancouver’s RNB Dance, Coquitlam’s Place des Arts, and Bowen Island’s Perform Arts Studios. Lewis auditioned them this past May, and they’ve been rehearsing all fall.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for those children to connect with the art form,” Lewis says. “It builds interest and builds community.”

Despite the show’s popular appeal, there are always Nutcracker naysayers who write it off as a mere money-maker and not a work of artistic value. But Lewis doesn’t buy it.

“If you forget that it’s called the Nutcracker and that we do it every year, it’s still beautiful bodies moving in unison to music that is absolutely gorgeous,” he says of the Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky score. “You want children to come to the production to get the sense that ballet is not something to be feared and to give them a positive experience, to say, ‘This is something I want to be part of later in life.’

“It’s part of a lot of people’s Christmas traditions, just like watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special every year,” he adds. “I don’t hear critics complaining about it like they did in the ’70s and ’80s—‘We’ve done the Nutcracker; it’s time to move on.’ We are moving on, in new ways.”

Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s performs The Nutcracker at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre December 14 to 16.

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