How the Grand Rapids Ballet Put a New Spin on The Nutcracker

Is The Nutcracker one of your yearly holiday traditions? This December, see it live at the Grand Rapids Ballet! Today, our guest blogger from Experience Grand Rapids shares how Michigan-born writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg and team put a new spin on an old favorite.

TheNutcrackerArtworkChris Van Allsburg, the East Grand Rapids native known for writing and illustrating books including The Polar Express and Jumanji, can add another credit to his impressive list. He, along with Tony and Emmy award winning set designer Eugene Lee and renowned choreographer Val Caniparoli, are giving new life to the Grand Rapids Ballet version of The Nutcracker under the direction of Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) Artistic Director Patricia Barker.

Barker is quite fond of traditions. She was a principal dancer in the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) production of The Nutcracker with set designs by children’s author Maurice Sendak. The lavish production became a holiday tradition in Seattle, and upon her arrival in Grand Rapids, she knew she wanted to create a similar tradition here.

Photo courtesy of The Grand Rapids Ballet

Photo courtesy of The Grand Rapids Ballet

It was Barker’s dream for a new Grand Rapids tradition that set the ball rolling. The Grand Rapids Ballet asked Van Allsburg to design The Nutcracker with his own vision two years ago. Although his daughter Sophia has danced the role of Clara with Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island, he still needed some “encouragement” from his wife Lisa along with friend and co-designer Eugene Lee to take on the project.

While Van Allsburg is not in Grand Rapids currently, Barker said he was an integral part in creating the aesthetic for this re-imagined production and is still involved. “I have been in conversation with Chris weekly, sometimes daily,” said Barker.

With the help of Barker’s German speaking husband, Barker and Caniparoli spent more than a year going over the E.T.A Hoffman story that The Nutcracker is based upon in its original German. And although the set design, production and costumes are all new, the heart of The Nutcracker remains the same.

Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Ballet

Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Ballet

Van Allsburg and Caniparoli were steadfast in their determination to focus on the original story of The Nutcracker. Eugene Lee also played a large role in ensuring from beginning to end the audience sees the complete story line of Clara coming of age and going through a wonderful adventure for all ages.

“We uncovered interesting nuances that have been lost over multiple translations such as architecture, clothing, embellishments, etc.,” said Barker. “But with that being said, there will still be recognizable plot lines from modern renditions of The Nutcracker.”

The spirit of The Nutcracker isn’t limited to Grand Rapids Ballet.

Opening Curtain - Photo courtesy of Grad Rapids Ballet

Opening Curtain – Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

Hotels will be offering Nutcracker Season packages along with special “Land of Sweets” desserts and a Nutcracker Cocktail contest at participating restaurants and bars.

For a more behind the scenes look, from November 20-January 15 the Grand Rapids Art Museum will have original artwork on display illustrating the process of this amazing production, along with costumes and set models that will give insight on how a production goes from conception to stage.

So get your tickets and plan a trip to Grand Rapids to the world premiere performance of the largest production in Grand Rapids Ballet history starting December 12. You won’t be disappointed.

Have you ever seen a performance at the Grand Rapids Ballet? Tell us about it!