When Russian composer Pyotor Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “The Nutcracker,” was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892, it was considered an entertainment for children and was panned by the critics.
The fanciful tale of a children’s Christmas party, though, caught the imagination of audiences, becoming part of holiday traditions, first in Russia, then in Europe and the United States.
A portion of the ballet, “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” was first performed for a Cedar Rapids audience on Jan. 14, 1925. It was the “first, last and only visit to Cedar Rapids” by Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, according to a Gazette reviewer, who noted, “Cedar Rapids was one of the few Midwestern cities to be placed on her farewell tour of America.”
Pavlova’s program at the Majestic Theatre was accompanied by “gorgeous scenic and luminous effects painted and designed by Joseph Urban,” an Austrian-American scene designer, whose sets required extra-long freight cars as they were shipped around the country.
In January 1927, the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Kitchin, included selections from “The Nutcracker Suite” during a performance in the Coe College Chapel.
The “Nutcracker” hit its stride in 1954 when ballet master George Balanchine reworked it for the New York City Ballet production at the City Center, where it became an annual Christmas staple.
In Eastern Iowa, though, performances in community or school concerts were limited to excerpts.
Students from the Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre school of dance performed with the Coe-Promenade Orchestra in a performance of “The Nutcracker Suite” in February 1961 in the Coe auditorium. The production was repeated in December, when local music teacher Torrence Carlson took the role of Dr. Drosselmeyer.
The 1972 production at Washington High School whetted appetites for more when Suki Morrissey played the Sugar Plum Fairy and Bruce Giza, Stuart Weinbrenner and Kevin Santee performed as Russian Trepak dancers.
THE FULL BALLET
In 1973, Edna Dieman and Julia Bennett returned from London in the summer with plans to perform the full “Nutcracker Suite” in Cedar Rapids that December.
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Two performances sponsored by the Iowa State Arts Council and Dance Theater Associates were set for Dec. 9 in the Washington High School auditorium by Dance Theater of the Hemispheres, the Dieman-Bennett dance company.
Phillip Carman of the Pennsylvania Ballet was chosen to dance the role of the Prince. Suki Morrissey was the Sugar Plum Fairy and Kristin Tescher was Clara. Tickets for both performances sold out by Dec. 4 and a Monday evening performance was added.
The first “Nutcracker” used taped music, but the second one in 1974 featured the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Williams. Two performances on Dec. 15 at Coe’s Sinclair Auditorium featured Jo Anne Lowe of Dayton, Ohio, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Tanju Tazer of the Harkness Ballet Company of New York as the Prince.
The ballet moved to the Paramount Theatre in 1976 when Burton Taylor of New York’s Joffrey Ballet took the lead role.
By 1977, the Dieman-Bennett presentation was considered a Christmas tradition. The guest artist was Charles Ward of the American Ballet Theatre. Staple players were Dean Karns and Suki Morrissey.
There was no “Nutcracker” in 1978 after Dieman and Bennett saw the brilliant London Festival Hall production and began reworking the show into a version based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story of the Nutcracker, which was less sweet and more like the imaginings of writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak.
The new 1979 show at the Paramount featured Suki Morrissey as the Sugar Plum Fairy and guest artist Ted Kivitt of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
In 1980, prima ballerina Pamela Hurst played both Louise and the Sugar Plum Fairy. There was no C.R. Symphony that year, but it returned in 1981 for a ninth holiday season, conducted by Gary Sheldon.
In 1982, young local dancers — dressed as mice in black leotards and pink ballet slippers — added to the “Nutcracker” appeal.
The Milwaukee Ballet brought its production of the Christmas classic to the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium in November 1983. Ted Kivitt was the principal dancer and artistic director with the Milwaukee troupe.
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In Cedar Rapids, part of the proceeds from 1984’s “Nutcracker” went to a scholarship for a member of the Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres. In order to fund the scholarship, participation by the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra was replaced with a tape of the London Philharmonic. Daniel Kaiser of the Pennsylvania Ballet was guest soloist as the Prince.
The show celebrated its 25th year — and possibly its last — with Dieman and Bennett in 1986. Torrence Carlson, often performing in Dieman-Bennett productions and an original 1961 cast member, took the role of Herr Stahlbaum.
The end of the tradition was attributed to “lack of subsidization,” according to Bennett, who explained the risks of mounting a professional show opposite a company like the Joffrey.
“I think ‘Nutcracker’ is a very beautiful tradition, and we get so many requests for it. We would love to keep the tradition going, but we feel if that can’t be done, let’s start something else — a contribution to the community and to the children.”
In 1987, the Joffrey Ballet premiered the ballet at Hancher Auditorium on Dec. 11 and 12. Following the unexpected death of Robert Joffrey in 1988, it didn’t return to the Hancher stage until 1989.
The Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres staged a comeback with a shortened version of the ballet in 1991 at the Scottish Rite Temple in Cedar Rapids. It did not feature a guest artist, and the cast and crew were entirely volunteer.
But it did have an unusual twist. John Fitzpatrick, program facilitator for fine arts in the Cedar Rapids school district, portrayed Dr. Drosselmeyer, clad in the white tie and tails worn at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City 100 years before when Tchaikovsky himself had conducted his “March Solennelle.” The formal evening attire was passed down to Fitzpatrick from his great-great uncle, Charles I. Wakefield.
In 1992, the 100th anniversary of “The Nutcracker,” Dieman and Bennett found donors to underwrite the holiday production that allowed hundreds of low-income children to attend the production, again at the Scottish Rite Temple.
The Joffrey returned to Hancher in 1993, the Dance Theater of the Hemispheres performed at the Paramount in 1995, and the Joffrey visited Iowa City again in 1996.
From there, Eastern Iowans saw productions by Ballet Jorgen Canada at Coe in 1999, the Moscow Ballet at the Paramount in 2001, 2006 and 2007, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago at Hancher in 2004, and a special Englert Theatre condensed version in 2005.
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The Ballet Quad Cities began collaborating with Orchestra Iowa for performances of “The Nutcracker” at the Paramount in 2013, a partnership that continues today, while Coralville’s Nolte Academy of Dance took over the Englert stage in Iowa City.
Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” came to Fairfield in December 2016 and included dancers from Cedar Rapids’ Pointe School of Dance. That year also saw the Joffrey premiered a re-imagined “Nutcracker” — this time with a poor immigrant family in Chicago in 1893 — on the Hancher stage before moving on to Chicago.
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