"The Nutcracker" is one of the most iconic ballets and holiday productions, combining child-like wonder with exquisite dance and music. Yesterday afternoon, Dec. 18, Rachel Malehorn and Marc Petrocci of The Milwaukee Ballet took the time to sum up this year's production of the famous ballet, as well as share some behind-the-scenes secrets. This past weekend began Milwaukee Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker", running now through Dec. 27.
"The Nutcracker" is a classic tale, set to a score by Tchaikovsky, wherein children are shrunk and transported to a magical land of sweets and toys. The synopsis has varied over the years, but the underlying whimsical, magical themes are ever-present. This production, directed by Michael Pink, varies in that it focuses on the three children- Fritz, Clara, and Marie- who are a constant presence throughout the production. After Drosselmeyer shrinks them down to toy-size, the three siblings go on an incredible adventure, where they meet The Nutcracker and The Rat King, who recruits his crew of mice to commandeer the new toy from the children.
Both Malehorn and Petrocci had great things to say about working with Pink and praised his gift for storytelling within the ballet. Petrocci said that Pink's role as a storyteller allows the audience to go on a journey, while Malehorn stated,
[Michael Pink] always wants to answer the question 'Why?'. Why are these dancers doing something? And usually it's the answers that we find together and the answers he helps us discover are in relation to the story, so the storytelling aspect of his ballets is what distinguishes them from other productions.... All the dancers on stage know what the story is in any of his productions so that we can better tell that story with our dancing and with our acting skills on stage.
Both Rachel Malehorn and Marc Petrocci knew early on that they wanted to be ballet dancers. Malehorn began dancing at 8 years-old, as a progression from gymnastics. And while she wasn't originally fond of the extra work in rehearsals and critiques in ballet, she grew to realize the reward in achieving the final product with a group of skilled dancers. As she says it,
The first time I did a performance on stage I finally understood why we had worked so hard in rehearsal because everything came together and paid off.
Petrocci was more of a soccer and hockey enthusiast, but drew inspiration from his sister, who began dancing at the age of three. Like Malehorn, Petrocci began dancing at 8 years-old, attending the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School at 11. By 15 he knew that ballet was to be his life's commitment as he drew connections between the physicality and focus found in both ballet and sports. In his own words,
It was the physicality of it married with the music was what was really cool to me. I always liked dancing but the kind of focus and commitment ballet required really struck a chord with me as with the artist and an athlete.
Both dancers have held several prominent roles in past Milwaukee Ballet productions, and this year Malehorn is featured as the first and only ever female Rat King and Petrocci is featured as Fritz. However, each of the cast members holds a variety of roles during the course of "The Nutcracker." The 24 members of the company switch roles to make four different casts which, while challenging for newcomers, allows dancers to keep the roles fresh and exciting. Petrocci elaborates saying,
Initially when I started out with the company and doing this production, taking on this many roles was a challenge and I really had to take that time before the show and prepare myself, and I find that looking at the people who join our company go through the same process. Now I've lived in these characters for so many years that it's just a lot of fun to explore them.
Petrocci is featured as Fritz but also plays the Jack-in-the-box as well as the Chinese doll, depending on the performance. Malehorn plays snow, flowers, and a party parent some nights, and is featured as the first and only female Rat King. This came about when she went to rehearsals for parts she wasn't called for as a way of challenging herself. This eventually lead to rehearsals as the Rat King, partly as a joke, partly as competition with the men in the company. The thought occurred to her to play the role in asking a question-
A couple of years ago asked myself, 'Why is the Rat King always the boy?' There's no reason. The audience can't see your face, the costume is kind of one-size-fits-all, I always personally wanted to have a sword on stage, and I always loved being the villain character!
But besides the fun in playing the villain, Malehorn saw a unique opportunity in this role to showcase a level of strength and athleticism not often realized in ballet.
I was so excited and actually very honored because not many people realize the true strength of a lot of female dancers because, especially in ballet, we're supposed to look very feminine and delicate and effortless. But actually female dancers, just by virtue of them dancing on point, have to be very, very strong so I personally really like when women get the opportunity to show how strong and athletic they are on stage.
Besides the incredible strength and athleticism required to perform ballet, Malehorn has the added challenge of wearing the heavy Rat King costume. The head alone, she shared, comes with its challenges as it both adds weight and decreases visibility.
This production of "The Nutcracker" incorporates a range of talent, besides the gifted Milwaukee Ballet dancers. Petrocci named off a few of the collaborators saying,
The beautiful thing about it is it's really a collaboration. It's a community thing- we have the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra joining us playing the score live, all those infectious melodies that come around Christmastime, we have the Milwaukee Children's Choir in the pits singing with them for us, and it really is a family affair and a magical journey.
In many ways, this is a production for the whole family to enjoy. Petrocci described it as "A family production geared towards family about a family," and Malehorn agreed saying how exciting children in particular found the performance as they laughed and cheered during their children's matinee. Malehorn summed up "The Nutcracker" experience saying,
I think 'The Nutcracker' truly is just about fun and beauty. I think that it's just purely enjoyable for the audience to be transported into different worlds.. to be taken along with the characters to a somewhat ordinary party scene to the Land of the Snowflakes and then to the Land of the Sweets where all the dolls are dancing around them.. where everything can come to life at any moment. I hope the audience can escape into this magical world right along with us.. to take away a sense of enchantment. Even though I know that's kind of the cliché word I think that that's true!
Milwaukee Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" continues now through Dec. 27 and tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Marcus Center Box Office at (414)273-7206. For more information, please visit the Milwaukee Ballet website.