Goh Ballet brings Vancouver a Nutcracker of its own

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After years of preparation, the Goh Ballet readies dancing mice and exquisite sets in an effort to launch a local holiday tradition

Chan Hon Goh has long had a sentimental connection to The Nutcracker. Shortly after her family emigrated from Beijing to Vancouver in 1978, where her parents—former National Ballet of China dancers—started the Goh Ballet Academy. From the moment she first stepped into pointe shoes at age nine, the young ballerina was as hooked on the art form as she was gifted: she went on to study at Canada’s National Ballet School and perform with the National Ballet of Canada. It was an early role in that classic holiday work that helped launch the spectacular 20-year career she went on to enjoy.

“My first principal role with the National Ballet was in The Nutcracker,” Goh says of her turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a phone interview. “That was 19 years ago. I still remember the studio and working with Celia Franca. I was so nervous and excited. I remember the first performance of it, how early I got to the theatre.

“That role gave me the chance to prove myself and allowed me to go on to other things,” she adds. “It has great emotional significance for me.”

Goh retired from the stage this past May, but she’s currently enjoying a new relationship with The Nutcracker. The company that her parents built from the ground up and that she now directs is putting the finishing touches on its own production of the holiday classic, the first in the organization’s 31-year history. With sets designed in China, nearly 200 dancers ranging in age from six to 76 in multiple casts, and exquisitely detailed costumes, the $700,000-plus show has been years in the works.

“We started to think about making a full-length Nutcracker about three years ago,” explains Goh, who’s acting as the work’s executive producer and artistic coordinator. “We wanted a full-scale production that the entire city would be really proud of and take ownership over.”

The timing couldn’t be more fortuitous. This is the first year in many that Ballet British Columbia isn’t bringing in a touring troupe to present the Christmas favourite. The financial strain that plagued the company earlier this year resulted in it cancelling most of its season, including presentations that used to fall under its danceAlive! series.

But Goh explains that it’s the Goh Ballet Academy’s goal to make its own Nutcracker a local custom. “It’s so important to create a sense of tradition,” she says. “We’ve already booked the theatre for next year.”

The Goh Ballet’s Nutcracker is traditional—to a degree. Choreographing the story ballet is Anna-Marie Holmes, a former star dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Kirov Ballet, among other companies, who’s now in her 10th season as ballet program director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance in Massachusetts. She’s an authority on Russian dance classics.

Over the years, the former Boston Ballet artistic director has made several versions of The Nutcracker, which is based on the E.T.A. Hoffman fairy tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and tells the story of Clara, who receives a nutcracker doll from her godfather, Drosselmeyer. She dreams about the toy coming to life and is transported on a magical, candy-coloured journey.

In 1891, choreographer Marius Petipa hired his assistant, Lev Ivanov, to choreograph a production that, despite having a score by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, flopped a year later. But celebrated dance maker George Balanchine breathed new life into the ballet in 1954, when he created a full-length piece for the New York City Ballet. It’s this version that people have come to know and love. While Holmes’s steps don’t stray too far from Balanchine’s, she’s putting her own stamp on the Goh interpretation.

For the role of Drosselmeyer, for instance, she hired Damien Carriere, a magician—“as it should be, but no one’s ever done it that way before,” notes Holmes, taking a few minutes away from rehearsal at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, where six-year-old girls dressed as whiskered mice are scurrying around two weeks before this Nutcracker’s world premiere December 17 to 20.

Holmes has also found local professional ballroom dancers to swirl on-stage, enlisted rhythmic gymnasts to dance the Arabian duet, and hired Christopher Hunt, better known in Vancouver’s drag scene as Symone, to take on the role of Mother Ginger.

“I wanted to bring the city together,” says Holmes, who was born in Mission but now splits her time between New York, Florida, and North Carolina, when she’s not travelling the globe for her work. “I admire Mr. and Mrs. Goh very much, and I asked them if they’d be open to bringing in other artists from the city. They supported the idea. They want to give back to the city.”

Besides having so many diverse local performers, this Nutcracker will feature guest performances by National Ballet of Canada principal dancers Sonia Rodriguez and Piotr Stanczyk.

“I’m really excited to see my friends dance here,” Goh says. “Vancouver dance audiences have never seen them in these roles before.”

Local viewers will also be treated to live music, with the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s famous score, as well as performances by the Tzu Chi Children’s Choir and Vancouver Children’s Choir.

“Having live music adds so much,” says Goh. “It embraces you, and the dance flows better.

“When I was thinking about what to write for the program notes,” she adds, “all the memories of my first Nutcracker came flooding back. It’s amazing how everything comes full circle.”

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