December 6, 2012

'Victorian Nutcracker' at Merrill

Portland Ballet brings its uniquely local holiday production to the stage this weekend.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

It's easy to lose perspective and take things for granted.

click image to enlarge

Portland Ballet brings back its popular “Victorian Nutcracker” in performances on Saturday and Sunday at Merrill Auditorium. The production is set in Portland during the Victorian era.

Courtesy Portland Ballet Company

click image to enlarge

This year’s “Victorian Nutcracker” features some new choreography.

Courtesy Portland Ballet Company


WHEN: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $24 to $54

INFO: 842-0800;;

If you're a newcomer to town -- or even if you've been here for some time -- you might assume that Portland Ballet's "The Victorian Nutcracker" has always been a holiday season staple.

But Eugenia O'Brien, founder and artistic director of Portland Ballet, met a fair amount of resistance getting enough people on board with the production, which debuted in 1992.

O'Brien is nothing if not visionary. She believed in the concept, addressed the concerns of her skeptics and moved forward with her idea.

Today, Portland Ballet's "The Victorian Nutcracker" stands as one of the city's most uniquely local holiday celebrations. On stage this weekend at Merrill Auditorium, the ballet is based on the widely produced and enormously popular "Nutcracker."

But it's very different.

Seeking local flair, O'Brien set this production in Portland's Victoria Mansion. She populated it with characters from Portland's past, and tried to bring alive the Victorian era in which the ballet was conceived; Tchaikovsky wrote the music for "The Nutcracker" in 1892.

"That was the period we wanted to refer to and the motivation for what we present. We try to create a fairly elegant and richly costumed production," O'Brien said. "We used motifs from the house, but also needed to keep in mind that our main objective is the dance. It was the dancing that we really wanted to use to convey the elegance of the period, the wealth of certain folks who were pillars of the community and were the names that still carry weight whenever you think of the grandeurs and the original patrons of the arts."

Those folks include Hermann Kotzschmar, a German immigrant who came to Portland to teach music. The city's famous organ at Merrill is named after him. Another is Ruggles Morse, who commissioned the construction of the Victoria Manson. Other prominent names are Baxter and Brown, politicians and business leaders from the era.

While keeping the traditional story intact, the "Victorian Nutcracker" connects the ballet to Portland in tangible ways.

A lot of people told O'Brien it couldn't be done. She eventually won the endorsement and support of the Victoria Mansion administrators at the time, but it wasn't easy. They were skeptical, unsure if they wanted to turn the legacy of the home over to O'Brien and her dance company.

But they eventually agreed, and this year, the production celebrates its 20th anniversary.

This year's show features new choreography by associate artistic director Nell Shipman for the battle scene, where the Nutcracker and his soldiers take on the Mouse King and his army of mice. (No worries -- the Nutcracker still wins.)

Portland Ballet's Joseph Morrissey updated the ribbon candy variation, and Katrina Smedal designed a new Chinese tea variation with a dancing dragon.

Lawrence Golan, music director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and former concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the orchestra for the ballet. The Victorian Festival Singers will sing in the lobby and for the snow scene.

Shipman admitted feeling a certain amount of pressure adding her touch to a piece so widely known and revered.

"Oh yeah, a lot," she said with a laugh. "I did a lot of research. I wanted to study it a little more, so I watched many different versions. Some were lacking in adventure, and some blew me away.

"It's important to stay true to me and my choreography, but also stay true to the story of 'The Victorian Nutcracker' and keep that artistic vision in mind. And you have to keep it true to the audience too. It's a big, big challenge. Seeing what else is out there is exciting, but also very frightening."

As with many other experienced dancers, Shipman has danced in "The Nutcracker" many times in many locations. Her last "Nutcracker" performance was in 2008, also with Portland Ballet.

She loves the piece.

"It's so funny. When you talk to dancers about 'The Nutcracker,' you get everything from a big sigh and roll of the eyes to, 'Oh my gosh, I love it.' I am one of those. I still get chills," Shipman said.

"It's just such an American tradition. I'm just pleased to be a part of it year after year. I have done it all over the country with many different companies. Children show up in their beautiful dresses with their grandparents. They are excited to get in their seats. It's very important to them."

Curiously, O'Brien never danced in "The Nutcracker." She ushered for it at Boston Ballet when she was younger, and she has been involved with it all her professional life. But she never danced it.

"I have staged it and done a lot with it, and have lived with it for so long through so many different eras. But I don't think I have ever danced in it," she said. "It's always been an important part of my bloodstream. This is the way I continue with that legacy."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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