Stoner Winslett is on her way to Norfolk. The artistic director of the Richmond Ballet is fighting an awful cold and trying to juggle last minute rehearsals of “The Nutcracker” with preparations for being out of town the rest of the week, ensuring her daughter’s needs are met while she’s away for the performances weekend run.
But her eyes are on the prize. Richmond Ballet’s new and improved “The Nutcracker” premiers in Richmond on Dec. 11, featuring never-before-seen production elements envisioned by Winslett after over a year in production, elements that will not be part of the Norfolk run.
One of the highlights, and a long-delayed addition to the production, is the swan sleigh that appears at the conclusion of Act 1. Designed in 2003 by the production’s original scenic designer, Charles Caldwell, plans for the fantastical conveyance were shelved because the ballet didn’t have the funding to have it built.
“We finally had the opportunity to do it this year,” Winslett says from Norfolk, while the sleigh is still being built by Adirondack Studios in upstate New York. The soft blue swan, adorned with a crown, lanterns and wrapped in an ornate weave of golden filigree, will glide across the stage, working its way around dancing snowflakes carrying Clara and her Nutcracker prince.
Because of the growing School of Richmond Ballet, this year’s production includes 187 students in myriad roles, including more angels and the creation of four Sugar Plum fairy attendants. “The school keeps getting bigger and better,” she says. “It’s an important experience for the students to be part of a professional production, right down to the Richmond Symphony in the pit.”
Winslett’s enthusiasm for the seminal ballet has been constant since she joined the company in 1980. Her 1984 version ran for 19 years, eventually replaced by her 2003 re-conception of the production, which she’s now tweaked and refined even further by creating choreography for a new scene to open Act 2. Colorful new costumes and redesign of costume embellishments further add to the freshness.
Part of the beauty of producing the same work year after year is the ability to compare apples to apples, she explains. “We have to be in pursuit of excellence every day. Every time we go onstage, we have to be a little better, with better dancing, better production elements. It builds on itself.”
Part of that motivation comes from “The Nutcracker” being an entry point for not just dancers, but patrons. As any parent, including Winslett, who’s ever taken a young child to see it knows, the first act with its colorful party and growing tree captures short attention spans, but the second act, with its more traditional ballet elements, often doesn’t.
When her young son was underwhelmed with Act 2, she set out to add elements that would engage him and other young viewers, adding in animal characters such as a bull, a snake, and a dragon. “We have a dancing bear, who’s not going to like that?” she says with laughter. On opening night of her new version in 2003, she took her then-13-year-old son. “He said, ‘Mommy, I never thought anyone could make the second act as good as the first.’ It’s one of my fondest memories.”
With a more than 30 year history in Richmond, “The Nutcracker” has been a backdrop for children who’ve grown up dancing in it. Ballet master Malcolm Burn oversees each year’s influx of new and familiar faces, having become accustomed to young dancers bringing greetings from their mothers. Those who were party children look on as younger children fill those roles and they move on to bigger ones.
For Burn, “The Nutcracker” is a constant. “It’s like going into a home you know so well,” he says. “You’re familiar with its surroundings.” It’s also, in his opinion, the best musical score ever written for ballet.
“The music never gets tired, the production never gets old,” Burn says. “I enjoy it every time. Stoner never stops trying to heighten the experience for the public.” S
“The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 11-23 at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St. Tickets available at 800-514-3849 or the Richmond Ballet box office at 407 E. Canal St.