The Nutcracker holds big sentimental value for people who saw it as a kid, but few can claim such exciting early experiences with the classic Yuletide work as Alberta Ballet’s Edmund Stripe.
At just 12 years old, when he was a student at London’s Royal Ballet School in the early ’70s, he was chosen to perform the part of a soldier in megastar Rudolph Nureyev’s version of The Nutcracker—a dark, inspired production that stays with Stripe to this day.
“I actually snaffled a couple of scenes from it,” the choreographer and ballet master admits, laughing over the phone from Calgary. Thinking back to those days, Stripe—whose own Nutcracker sees its Vancouver debut at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this week—also remembers that his experience with Nureyev inspired one of his earliest stabs at choreography: “When I was at school, I got together a few friends and put together my own little battle scene. Of course, I didn’t realize that almost 40 years later I’d be doing my own version of it.”
Neither could Stripe have known that The Nutcracker would come to form such a huge part of his career—culminating in the lavish, $1.5-million production that will soon be travelling here. You could say he feels right at home in the surreal dreamworld of soldiers, sugarplum fairies, and oversized mice.
A young dancer who had been raised on the classics by his balletomane parents, Stripe went on to join Portugal’s Ballet Gulbenkian and the London City Ballet, but it wasn’t till he hooked up with the West Australian Ballet that he started performing The Nutcracker regularly. Later, as ballet master at Singapore Dance Theatre, he oversaw productions of it, and then, in 2002, he joined the Alberta Ballet with the express purpose of overseeing its touring productions of Mikko Nissinen’s version of the classic ballet.
His immersion in the Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky–scored Christmas wonderland has also revealed to him some of the lasting power of the work. “In North America it’s become a part of Christmas tradition. People write it into their calendars,” he says, and then adds of the famous score the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will perform live here: “Another aspect is the music, and it’s very popular—sometimes for all the wrong reasons, like when they play it in the shopping malls. But it’s ballet music people can associate with.”
By 2006, the costumes and sets for Nissinen’s Nutcracker were “falling apart”, he says, and when Stripe expressed interest in creating a new production, Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maí®tre agreed. Stripe had just finished choreographing a successful rendition of Alice in Wonderland, but The Nutcracker was a completely different challenge: Stripe knew the ballet was the financial bread and butter for the company and needed a traditional treatment. “It was never going to be a radical version, but of course I had my own take on it,” he explains.
What was not traditional, however, was how closely, and early, he worked with veteran American opera and ballet costume designer Zack Brown, who immediately suggested setting the action in Imperial Russia, instead of the traditional Germany. Stripe says the era is one of Brown’s favourites, and offers a glittering, Fabergé egg–like opulence that people crave when they go to see The Nutcracker.
“His costume designs were stunning,” says Stripe, adding that hiring Brown was “a no brainer”. “So now there’s an Imperial Russian theme that runs throughout. All the Flowers have Russian tutus, and the Snowflakes are dressed like little czarinas. A lot of choreography came from Zack’s design.”
The result, which debuted in Alberta in 2008, boasts a dazzling array of snowy outdoor street scenes, luxurious palaces, a Cossack duet, and even Arctic wolves slinking out onto the stage.
Unlike most choreographers, Stripe, as ballet master, gets to shepherd his production from city to city. “It’s still my baby,” he explains. In the summer, he auditioned local children to dance some of the roles in the show, and will return to Vancouver right before opening to help integrate them into the production. The child dancers are a unique aspect of The Nutcracker that makes the show different in every city—and that he has mixed feelings about. “It’s a joy to see them when they’re happy, depressing when I have to refuse them,” he says candidly.
You have to wonder if Stripe’s sympathy for the little ballet dancers goes back to his own childhood at the barre. Some aspects of ballet never change—and neither do some of Stripe’s associations with it. Ask him what part of this Nutcracker is his favourite, and it’s the same high-flying sequence that captured his imagination as a boy. “It’s still the battle scene, certainly for the music,” he admits. Only this time, of course, the mice are dressed like Cossack soldiers.