An Extraordinary Twist on a Traditional Classic

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by Richelle Kimble

German author E.T.A. Hoffman wrote and illustrated a story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816. His work heavily influenced the 19th century Romantic Movement and wasn’t limited to storytelling. Hoffman was a jurist, composer, music critic and caricaturist; he undoubtedly aimed to impact the European culture of the 1800s, but a more extreme influence began 70 years after his death when his story came to life on the stage of the Imperial Russian Ballet.

The ballet adaptation first premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, choreographed by the renowned faces of Russian art, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music, while Ivan Vsevolozhsky designed the original costumes. This foursome of talent continues to inspire artists of all kind, bringing unique life to each reproduction of this ballet of high repute.

Van Allsburg at The Nutcracker Re-Visioned exhibit in the Grand Rapids Art Museum that shows the various stages of drawing and production.
Van Allsburg at The Nutcracker Re-Visioned exhibit in the Grand Rapids Art Museum that shows the various stages of drawing and production.


Among those artists are the brilliant minds behind the Grand Rapids Ballet’s new production. Despite being one of the most popular ballets in the world and having multiple showings in Grand Rapids, The Nutcracker has never been produced by our city’s own company.

“We need a Nutcracker that’s ours, and we need something that represents us as a city that is growing, a place to go and gather to create traditions for our families,” said Patricia Barker, artistic director at the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, in a video segment.

Barker has been part of The Nutcracker culture since her career at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), where she danced first as Rose in Waltz of the Flowers (1982), and then as the lead role, Clara, in the 1986 film version of PNB’s Nutcracker: The Motion Picture. Barker said she had the wonderful opportunity of working with Maurice Sendak at PNB, and their creation of The Nutcracker solidified the performance as a major holiday component in the Pacific Northwest.

Patricia Barker, artistic director at the Grand Rapids Ballet Company
Patricia Barker, artistic director at the Grand Rapids Ballet Company

“This one-of-a-kind collaboration was monumental in establishing The Nutcracker as a holiday tradition in the Seattle Area,” said Barker. When she came to Grand Rapids in 2010, she brought with her the vision to establish a similar tradition for West Michigan.

While the idea of a new Nutcracker production may draw inspiration from Barker’s past experiences, the actual production itself is a completely re-imagined work in collaboration with one of America’s most innovative picture book creators, Chris Van Allsburg. Together, Barker and Van Allsburg studied Hoffman’s original story discovering details, style and architecture to pull into the reproduction, ensuring
the details didn’t get lost in translation.

Van Allsburg is famous for his books and illustrations, such as The Polar Express, Zathura, and Jumanji. His creations bring childhood stories a sense of maturity with the aid of striking details, delivering a product fit for all ages. When it came time to start drawing for The Nutcracker, Van Allsburg began his journey on trace paper, giving each photo and schematic drawing incredible attention and precision, even paying attention to the intent of the piece (whether it would be produced as three-dimensional or two-dimensional). From initial idea to full stage production, the process took two years. These unique drawings will be seen for the first time by the public eye at the world premier on December 12.

One piece of final artwork that has been released to the public is Van Allsburg’s version of Drosselmeyer. While drawing this particular piece, his friend dressed as the character and posed for him as he transferred his inspiration to paper. “I got a top hat, a cape, a scarf, and some white gloves, and had him take this pose, and I sketched him like this,” said Van Allsburg.

“There’s nothing like real paint on canvas.” – Chris Van Allsburg

After finishing his drawing, he transferred it to pastel, sent it to a traditional scenic painting studio in New York City, and there, they enlarged it to a (roughly) 60-foot painting. Van Allsburg mentioned how the majority of set designs resort to printing, but having it hand painted creates an ambiance inimitable by digital technology. “No matter what kind of material they use, the inject printers just don’t deposit the same kind of color in the screen,” said Van Allsburg. “There’s nothing like real paint on canvas.”

Several pieces of the set design were created this way, with the guidance of Tony Award Winning set designer Eugene Lee (known for Bernstein’s Candide and Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd and Wicked).

Finally, the production’s most critical aspect of life are the dancers, choreographed by the distinguished Val Caniparoli, whose work has reached more than 35 companies across the world.

This cohesive quartet of artists (Van Allsburg’s artwork, Lee’s set designing, Vaniparoli’s choreography and Barker’s directing) have created a production sure to stun cultures around the world.

“[This team] will present a world-class production that will forever be a product of Grand Rapids,” said Glenn Del Vecchio, Grand Rapids Ballet Executive Director. “We couldn’t be more proud of this accomplishment or more excited to share it with our community this holiday season.”

The world premiere for The Nutcracker will take place at DeVos Performance Hall with show dates on December 12-14 and 19-21, 2014. For more information, visit



When she’s not editing for WLM and spending time with her fellow staff members, Richelle enjoys exploring, traveling, writing, reading, cooking, learning and playing.



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