It’s a question that choreographers ask every year: How can we make “The Nutcracker” new and different?

A logical follow-up to that is: Is it necessary?

Ballet companies across America have made “The Nutcracker” a fixture of their holiday shows for more than a half-century. The Russian import remains one of the most-produced pieces of performance art, and for good reason.

Families love it, and make it an annual tradition. Ballet companies are happy to present it because it sells tickets.

The trick is keeping it fresh and exciting for the artists while providing the audience with an annual holiday fix.

Portland Ballet has presented its version for 20 years, and returns next week for its latest incarnation of “The Victorian Nutcracker.”

This one, which will be performed at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Wednesday and at Westbrook Performing Arts Center on Dec. 21, sets the well-told story inside the Victoria Mansion in Portland, and populates it with characters from the city’s past. The framework of the traditional story is in place, with the history of Portland incorporated.

The unique version has worked well for Portland Ballet, and the company’s artistic director Eugenia O’Brien isn’t interested in reinventing it.

“Having said that, we felt it was important to breathe new life into it to further show off where the company has come in the last 20 years. We’re a very different company now than we were then, and we want to show that off,” she said. “We had an artistic visioning meeting, where we addressed some of the spots we felt could be enhanced. It needed to be freshened up.”

O’Brien left that task to associate artistic director Nell Shipman.

She retooled choreography in the Party Scene of Act I and the Finale of the ballet. While Portland Ballet tweaks the show year to year, this is the largest reshaping of the ballet in many years.

“I think with these changes there is more of a storyline to it,” Shipman said. “It feels more like a story that you can understand, rather than a series of dances.”

Audiences may notice additional character development.

“There is a new life and pace to the Party Scene that really makes it feel as though those who are watching are a part of the action and enjoying the holiday party and spirit themselves,” Shipman said. “Audiences can still experience many of their favorite parts of the Party Scene, such as the magic dolls coming to life to dance and the lighting of the Christmas tree. There is just a greater sense of excitement as more of the characters become part of the magic.”

The other scene that Shipman has redone is the closing of the ballet. When the excitement of Olivia’s dream starts to fade, she finds herself awakened by her aunt, Mrs. Morse, who has found her asleep in the front parlor.

As Mrs. Morse leads Olivia back to bed, Olivia asks for her beloved Nutcracker to bring with her. Upon retrieving her gift, images of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker come to life and swirl about her imagination as she drifts back to sleep.

“With one last sweep of his magic cape, Olivia’s eccentric Godfather makes us all wonder if it really was a dream.” Shipman said. “With this new ending, I feel the real sense of family and childhood wonder that surrounds that holiday season is brought to the stage and leaves the audience, no matter their age, feeling all the excitement this time of year has to offer.”

Wednesday’s performance at Merrill will include live music, under the baton of Lawrence Golan. The orchestra includes many members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Golan is former concertmaster of the PSO, and serves as principal conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic, music director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Denver Philharmonic. The Victorian Festival Singers also will perform at Merrill.

There will not be a live orchestra for the performance at Westbrook. For that performance, Portland Ballet will employ recorded music.

O’Brien is eager to show off the revamped ballet.

“There is nothing ho-hum or bahumbug about another ‘Nutcracker.’ We’re excited to show it off,” she said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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