A fresh look at a classic holiday ballet

Pretty much everyone—from dedicated libretto enthusiasts to people who just like twinkly lights—has heard of The Nutcracker. With gorgeous music by composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the story is a beloved holiday favorite: A young girl and boy venture from reality to fantasy after rescuing an enchanted prince from the wicked mouse king; a journey through a magical snow forest; dancing sugar plums; a bit of mystery, a bit of romance and a lot of adventure too! And a nutcracker, of course.

Joseph Morrissey, Interlochen’s new Director of Dance, plans to create a brand new version of the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet featuring a newly constructed set, made possible by a gift from Drs. Nicholas & Elaine Mischler. We spoke with Morrissey about his love for the holiday favorite, his thoughts on the importance of The Nutcracker in the educational continuum and what we can expect to see from this brand-new production.

What follows is an edited transcript.

What was your first experience with The Nutcracker?

It was my very first ballet … I was one of the boys in the party scene. This first performance was with a smaller school that did not have a set, but we did have an orchestra.

The next year I performed in the Boston Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, which was one of the most popular Nutcracker productions in the world. Going from a gymnasium-style auditorium to the Wang Theatre in Boston was exciting—it was a huge difference to be in a professional production of The Nutcracker and to be a kid watching the Boston Ballet company dancers perform on the very same stage as me.

I remember the party scene kids had the chance to watch the second act from the wings, which was an opportunity that I grabbed. Having the chance to watch such amazing dancers so up close allowed me to learn from all of them. Nothing beats being around them right up front.

Is there anything people should watch for in the new production? Anything you’re excited about?

I was just in the set room and saw that they’re working on the clock and stove for the party scene. The production team here at Interlochen is outstanding—we have been working on ideas together since my arrival here in early July and it is amazing to start witnessing things come to fruition right in front of my eyes. I suppose I can probably let people know that there will indeed be dancers portraying mice in the cast this year, along with one more special guest-star animal!

I will also host short 30-minute pre-performance talks in order to enhance the audience’s overall experience. I believe it is interesting for audiences to understand what goes into making a production, along with appreciating a bit of history about the ballet they are seeing. The Nutcracker is 123 years old this year—and we’re also celebrating Tchaikovsky’s 175th birthday.

(The pre-performance talks will be free to all ticket holders and will be held one hour prior to select performances.)

So no explosions? Giant mecha robots? A space opera?

No! (Laughs.) Aside from all new choreography, anything else that’s new is there to enhance the plot—to make sure the story is being told clearly and to make sure people leave the theatre feeling inspired and motivated to enjoy the holiday season with their friends and family. The only piece that will be kept relatively similar to the production’s 1892 premiere is the Grand Pas de Deux in Act II, with original choreography by Lev Ivanov. It’s timeless.

And we’ll have little kids as well. So we’re showing some of the beautiful changes that happen throughout childhood and through your formative years, and how the magic of The Nutcracker keeps reminding us of that beautiful change.

What kinds of things do you hope the students and other children take away from this production?

Well, they’ll learn to work together as a team and as dancers, they will see that interaction with a new piece of choreography coming together with a beloved classic score—I know what the score is, but I will not know what the actual steps will be until I have the students in the studio and we start to work on it. So it’s about music and dance, how they’re fusing that together in the ongoing relationship I want to be fostering in the program.

It sounds like you’re saying that the choreography is going to be informed by the students.

Yes—they’re inspiring me, just as I hope to inspire them. It’s a trade. Day one of rehearsals is a blank canvas. And each of those students has something to contribute to the process of it all.

Ultimately what will go onstage will be what looks best for the production. But it’s important to challenge the students, because they’ll be working on this ballet for the main part of the first semester. By the time the performance comes, they’ve not only mastered the dance, but they’re performing in front of thousands. It’s a very rewarding thing to go from “I never thought I could do this” to, “Yes, I can do this—and not only do I get to do this, but I’ve got a beautiful costume, a live orchestra and a brand new set to dance with too” it’s all very exciting indeed.

Are the Tchaikovsky ballets among your favorites? It sounds like you have a personal connection to his work—can you talk about that a little?

I do—I love Tchaikovsky. Not only his three composed ballets, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, but his orchestral work as well. I think when one listens to Tchaikovsky one can hear his soul—his music speaks to the heart. Tchaikovsky’s music resonates so well with me and I am certain I do not stand alone in this. And his melodies are unparalleled; he’s composed works that have inspired so many artists. The adagio of the Grand Pas de Deux in Act II (of The Nutcracker), for instance—it just pulls your heartstrings.

And I think it’s wonderful for dancers too. There’s such a wide range of roles—you have mice, you have flowers, you have snowflakes, you have dolls and so much more. You can grow up playing every part in The Nutcracker and just learn so much. And even if you repeat a certain role a few times, the music can always remind one why he or she continues to love this ballet.

Joseph, how many roles have you had in The Nutcracker over the years?

Well, my first role I was around 8 years old … let me think … I think I’ve had at least 10.

Different roles?

Yes, about 10, or maybe even more—various roles in different productions, professional and in school. Believe it or not, that’s not so unusual—especially for men. I guess you could say I’ve had the whole journey with The Nutcracker, but nothing for me compares to the experience of producing an entire one from scratch.

I do love this ballet—I love what it does for audiences and dancers alike, and I hope to bring that to our audiences and dancers at Interlochen this season. I know dancers can get kind of jaded, like “oh, no, not again”—but I thought, it’s Tchaikovsky’s 175th birthday, why would we not want to give a present to our audiences with a brand-new production? I want people to leave the theater feeling enchanted and proud of Interlochen’s brand-new production of The Nutcracker.

If you would like to see this season’s production of The Nutcracker at Interlochen, get tickets at tickets.interlochen.org/nutcracker. If you can’t make the journey to Michigan, don’t forget about our webcasts—go to live.interlochen.org to learn more.

—Cheryl Bowles, content manager, Interlochen Center for the Arts