Richmond, VA – In my 3 years photographing and writing for Digital Beat Magazine I have made it my goal to expand my understanding of the musical arts (and others too). I have covered acts ranging from Ukrainian progressive metal to Japanese Taiko Drummers. As I have broadened my artistic horizons and have been wowed by almost everything I covered, I have come to the conclusion that even if the look and sound are different, the various genres and artistic styles have, in many respects, a lot in common and ‘listening’ to a performance through a lens can be quite enlightening.
Several months ago I decided to approach Richmond Ballet to cover their annual performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”. I thought it was going to be similar to my previous experiences. I would fall in love with the art as I photographed and put the experience to words, while also seeing commonality to the 50+ performances I have covered to date. Yes, there are commonalities (a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll) but it takes a galactic level of dedication, cooperation, coordination (as in planning), and yes, athleticism to put together a performance of this magnitude. Thanks to the information and access provided by the wonderful people at Richmond Ballet, not only was I blown away by the performance, I also gained a ton of respect and admiration for the efforts that go into the production of such a performance, from the dancers, directors, production staff, and all others involved.
It should be obvious I am not a ballet aficionado. That added to the awe I felt as I witnessed the story unfold before me. In a day where technology is used to deliver the WOW to audiences it was refreshing to feel multiple rushes of WOW using costume, set, movement, and unprocessed music! Honestly, words cannot convey the utter amazement I felt any justice. Thankfully a picture is worth a thousand words.
As the house lights dimmed the sound of the Nutcracker “Overture” performed by Richmond Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Erin Freeman, filled the Dominion Energy Center. The annual Richmond tradition, kicked off in the 80s by founder, director, and choreographer, Stoner Winslett, had returned to the stage after a COVID induced hiatus.
The curtain opened to a bustling street scene as residents rushed to attend what was to be the Christmas party of the year at the Stahlbaum house. As the family awaited the arrival of their guests we meet Clara, played by School of Richmond Ballet student Adhya Yaratha, who along with her brother Fritz, joyously anticipate the night to come. Clara and her friends peer through the keyhole of the door to get a glimpse of the beautiful Christmas tree on the other side.
Once inside the real partying begins. The town’s toymaker (Drosselmeyer) is truly a magician and presents the guests with two packages containing large dancing dolls (a Harlequin and Columbine in one box and a toy soldier in the other). As the Harlequin and Columbine danced, I got my first look at the precision and discipline required. While made to appear toylike and somewhat chaotic, their dance was playfully choreographed and fun to watch. The soldier doll, on the other hand, was much more structured and… well… military… in his dance.
Clara’s gift from the toymaker is the namesake for the ballet, a beautiful nutcracker. Jealous, her brother tries to take it from her and breaks it. Clara is able to find Drosselmeyer, who promptly repairs the nutcracker to Clara’s delight.
After the guests leave for the night, Clara returns to the tree to protect her cherished gift. With the nutcracker in hand, she is attacked by mice attempting to steal the nutcracker from her. At this point, some very odd things take place. Clara finds herself shrinking (much to my pleasure, CGI was not needed) and joins an army of toys that had come to life. Here we meet the evil mouse king and his minions as they set out to wage war with the nutcracker and his army. Just when it seems all hope is lost, Clara hurls a slipper at the mouse king which ultimately leads to his death. With the demise of the evil king, we see the nutcracker transformed into a prince played by Carter Bush, also a student at the School of Richmond Ballet.
Clara and the prince find themselves in a snow kingdom and are greeted by dancing snowflakes and the Snow Queen and King (played by Richmond Ballet Company dancers Izabella Tokev and Joe Seaton). Taking the stage in an elegant swan carriage, the king and queen’s pas de deux was amazing! Having never seen such a performance through a lens, I was awed by the grace of the dance combined with the sheer power Tokov of Seaton demonstrated. The performance was made more spectacular as the dance wove in and out of a corp de ballet of snowflakes. As act one ends, Clara and the prince board the snow queen carriage and ride off as the freshly fallen snow bids them adieu.
Richmond Ballet Nutcracker Act 1 Photo Gallery
The second act opens to the prince and Clara traveling in the swan carriage through the clouds passing guiding angels along the way. This is where we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier (portrayed by Sabrina Holland and Khaiyom Khojaev) who, much like the Snow King and Queen, treat us to a wonderful performance which ultimately takes us to a tasty kingdom of sweets.
The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier are riveted to their thrones as the prince and Clara tell the harrowing tale of how they defeated the mouse king. A great victory celebration is had and all in attendance join in!
Clara and the prince, taking the thrones, are first treated to a Spanish dance. Donning matador attire and traditional Spanish dresses, the performance delivered high energy and pleasure to the pair as they looked on.
Up next was an Arabian dance, complete with charmer and snake (Ira White and Naomi Robinson). Of the dances, this was the most intense. Ira and Naomi did a wonderful job, not only in dance, but facial expressions and overall body language. They conveyed a powerful and somewhat seductive vibe. As I watched through the lens, I questioned who was really charming who. Bravo for their performances!
Next on the guest list was a very long Chinese dragon and its keeper. Doing a ballet adaptation of a Chinese dragon dance they gave the night a Silk Highway flare with a great deal of acrobatics by the Chinese dancer.
As the dragon left the stage on came what appeared to be Little Bo Peep… had she lost her sheep? Always willing to help, a wolf introduces himself to her as she gazes upon him in terror. Her fears appeared to turn to a little anger perhaps when the wolf removed his mask. There was much celebration, however, as shepherd, man (wolf) and sheep walk away together.
Fun was next on the table as Russian Cossacks, complete with a well-trained and quite graceful bear, danced for the guests. They thrilled Clara and the prince to no end with a traditional Cossack dance. Momentarily stepping out of character (actually, quite in line with the fun-loving character), the three break from tradition and do a little stage break dancing. So much fun!
Beauty and nature was the theme of the final dance as wildflowers and butterfly (Eri Nishihara). Nashihara brought her role to life as she eloquently fluttered from flower to flower.
To finish up the night, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier did another majestic pas de deux before all the dancers took to the floor for the grand finale. This was a wonderfully choreographed piece as it put many of the elements of each of the previous dances into one grand finale.
And just like that, it is over. Clara, waking from her sleep, looks around for the prince and does not see him. It is then she notices the nutcracker that is beside her. She holds it up in the air, with her mother beside her, as the final curtain falls. What a wonderful story!!
Richmond Ballet Nutcracker Act 2 Photo Gallery
The score, written by Tchaikovsky in the late 19th century and the story, based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” have become the staple of Christmas tradition all around the world. The Winslett adaptation and Richmond Ballet performance drew critical acclaim by the New York Times (Alastair MacAulay said it was “the most perfect” of the 23 performances he had seen for the first time in 2010).
Prior to the performance I had the opportunity to speak with Richmond Ballet Managing Director, Brett Bonda, and learned that this is the Ballet’s number one draw for the season, bringing people from all walks of life together to share in the joy of their performance. Planning for the performance starts well in advance of the production and involves the entire organization. This performance is, by far, their biggest ticket item of the year and it takes a lot of resource to make it successful.
The casting of School of Ballet students in many of the roles in the production highlight the power of a program started by Bonda called Minds in Motion, which introduces dance to many of the schools in the Richmond area. Pre-pandemic there were over 20 schools in the program, which makes dance a curriculum requirement in 4th grade. According to Bonda, Minds in Motion “has been an opportunity for us to find dancers of varying backgrounds, many of them not even knowing they were interested in dance. Then, all of a sudden you introduce them and they fall in love with dance.” An interesting aspect of the production is that auditions are limited only to students in the school or to those in Minds in Motion. This is indeed a homegrown effort.
To get an idea of the hard work it takes to make into a primary role in the “Nutcracker” (or any production with Richmond Ballet), I was able to talk with Izabella Tokov (the Snow Queen in this cast). She developed a love for ballet at a young age and worked relentlessly to achieve her dance goals. At 16, with the blessing of her family, she went to study her passion for ballet in Russia. Perm Ballet School was her home for three years before coming back to the States and joining Richmond Ballet. This is her sixth year with the company and has worked her way from second company to the main company. She has been with the main company for three years. The work ethic and dedication is obvious and is not for everyone. A typical evolution is to receive the best possible training, join a company, and with Richmond Ballet, be part of a second company, usually performing in a corp de ballet (a group of dancers) before being accepted to the main company. Each successive role prepares a dancer for the next.
Throughout my life I have come in contact with what I call traditionalists (do it exactly the way the composer wanted it) and modernists (artistic freedom is a great thing). I asked her about her thoughts and, in a nutshell was told, that had I talked to her before Richmond Ballet she would have been on the traditionalist side of the aisle. Her experience with Richmond Ballet has made her love modernization as well. One point she made was that artists over time have taken risks, even to the degree that work that is now considered classical was thought to be extremely radical at the time.
There are two different casts for the Richmond Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker. Several of the members change roles between casts. The cast members are listed below (those who were not in the other cast are bolded).
Clara: Frances Roberts (School of Richmond Ballet student)
Prince: Daniel Miller (School of Richmond Ballet student)
Snow Queen: Sarah Joan Smith
Snow King: Jack Miller
Sugar Plum Fairy: Eri Nishihara
Cavalier: Enrico Hipolito
Snake: Izabella Tokev
Charmer: Joe Seaton
Butterfly: Naomi Wilson
This journey into ballet has been one of the most enlightening experiences in my tenure with Digital Beat. With a little luck I will be able to cover additional performances in the future and, with a little more luck, learn a little more about this wonderful art. With this being the last year for the costumes and sets used for this rendition of the ballet, I am very curious to see what Winslett and the others on the production team do to make the ‘most perfect’ performance even more perfect.
If you happen to be in Richmond this Christmas season be sure to catch this Richmond Ballet tradition at the Dominion Energy Center now through December 23rd. You will be happy you did.