A GRANDS BALLETS TRADITION
Nutcracker changed little since 1964
With the regularity of a clockwork soldier, Les Grands Ballets’ lavish production of The Nutcracker reports for duty on Thursday to begin its annual 21/2-week billeting at Place des Arts. Now in its 55th year, this unapologetically ultratraditional production has attracted more than two million spectators. That’s two million-plus people reliably oohing and aahing at the sight of more than 300 sumptuous costumes; at the magnificent sets representing the von Stahlbaums’ lavish Christmas party, the magical Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets; at the trompe l’oeil of an incredible shrinking Clara as she’s magically transformed to mouse-size proportions; and at the dazzling skills of Les Grands Ballets’ finest dancers, going through the paces the late Fernand Nault first choreographed in the early 1960s. It’s pure, sumptuous, feel-good holiday spectacle, for sure, but how has it managed to stay on its toes for so long? And how do those dancers, many of them returning to the same parts for the umpteenth time, keep themselves from manically gibbering whenever they hear those opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s overture? One of those dancers is Jean-Sébastien Couture, who this season chalks up his 19th year performing in the show. Originally from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, he joined Les Grands at 17 and now, as a first soloist, he’s alternating with several other dancers in the roles of von Stahlbaum, Drosselmeyer, the Mechanical Soldier, the Spaniard and, of course, the Nutcracker. In terms of coping with the physical demands of the show’s 21/2-week, often twice-daily run, Couture explains how the roles are distributed. “The way we work usually is that we have five different dancers doing the same part and we rotate,” he says during a chat at Les Grands Ballets’ Wilder Building HQ. “It allows us to avoid injury, because if you’re doing the same part many times, jumping on the same leg, you have more chances of getting injured.” Just how gruelling the rigours of ballet can be is indicated by the fact Couture suffers from a herniated disc. He says he has been dancing around it for years and spends a considerable part of his working days performing exercises to mitigate its effects. Throughout the decades, there have been minor changes to the choreography Nault created back in 1964. For instance, Couture recalls Nault himself coaching him to make subtle changes as one of the soldiers battling the marauding mice. Recently, there have been more substantial changes that perhaps chime with the times: Clara, for instance, now takes a more active part in the second act, rather than just sitting back and swooning over the feats of exotic visitors to the Kingdom of Sweets.
I think about the people in the audience, it might be their first time seeing it, or maybe their last . ... So for me, it’s super important to give it all.
Also, says Couture, “the Chinese Dance has been toned down because it was a little bit racist. We’ve changed it, as most companies have. Some change the choreography, some change the costume. We have to be aware of things like that, for sure, because the world is changing around us.” According to Couture, the dancers are also given some leeway regarding the way they portray their characters, which he agrees can be a way of keeping one’s sanity. Couture was one of the dancers who performed the role of brooding gamekeeper Mellors in the company’s recent adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, so the opportunity to act a layered role like toymaker and magician Drosselmeyer comes as a welcome challenge. Is Drosselmeyer a sadistic puppet master, or a lovable uncle? “He can be a bit of both,” says Couture. “In the first part, he’s a little bit quirky and the kids are a little bit scared of him. At the same time, he’s there to make them happy. He brings gifts like the Mechanical Soldier and Harlequin and Columbine. After, you see in Clara’s dream that he’s depicted as a little bit sinister because he arrives with a big cape and he’s the one that makes the scary mice come and get her. But he’s also the one that makes the Nutcracker grow and defend her. “When the dancer knows the steps with a character like that, we can take some liberties. Depending on the dancer’s interpretation, you can decide to make him a little bit more evil or nicer, even from day to day, depending on your mood.” As if to offset what is sometimes seen as the ballet’s cloying conservatism, some Nutcracker productions have explored, say, the Freudian aspects of Clara’s magical adventures. Have there been attempts to radically reinterpret the story in this production? No, according to Couture, and you can understand why they wouldn’t want to tinker with a winning formula. There are also practical reasons to leave well enough alone. The astronomical cost of the existing sets and costumes discourages significant change: the costumes alone, all designed by the late François Barbeau, average $2,000 each. And, says Couture, “there are always new dancers, and we have two weeks to rehearse,” so there’s simply no time to sit around a table discussing the characters’ ids, superegos and the like. Not surprisingly, in an enterprise this huge that relies on so much stage trickery, things can occasionally go wrong, and that’s fine by Couture. “It adds to the performance and the thrill a little bit,” he says. Memorable mishaps over Couture’s 19 years have included the toy Nutcracker’s head falling off before Fritz, the naughty child, has a chance to rip it off; the cannon failing to pop at the right moment, thus messing up an important cue for the army of toy soldiers; and the paper in a hoop being too strong for a Russian dancer to leap through. (In the event, he just walked around it after several attempts, which no doubt looked like a rehearsed sight gag to the audience.) Couture once found himself at the mercy of an unco-operative prop. “I was playing the Mechanical Soldier who comes out of a box,” he says. “There’s a little trick that involves Velcro. But the Velcro had just been changed and was much stronger than usual. So the door wouldn’t open.” Given all the stress of wayward props, all the extreme physical exertion, all the existential angst of returning to the roles again and again, it sometimes seems one of the most impressive feats the dancers perform is to keep on smiling so gleefully throughout. How do they do it? “I always think about the people in the audience. It might be their first time seeing it, or maybe their last. So if on that day I represent the Spanish dancer, for that person, it’s going to be for life, the way they’re always going to remember that role. So for me it’s super important to give it all.” And just in case there are cynics out there who think those smiles are fixed, or in any way insincere, Couture has an anecdote from one of his very first Nutcrackers that might stop your Grinching. “There’s a part where Clara’s bed slides onto the stage, and it seems like it’s motorized, but it’s actually someone underneath pushing it. I was doing that job when I was younger, and the first time I did it, my mom was in the audience. And I remember smiling for the audience — even though no one could see me!”
Jean-Sébastien Couture performs multiple roles, including the Mechanical Soldier, in Les Grands Ballets’ production of The Nutcracker.
More than two million spectators have oohed and aahed at the Land of Snow and other lavish sets in Les Grands Ballets’ Nutcracker.
Les Grands Ballets dancers Chen Sheng as the Prince and Vanessa Montoya as the Sugar Plum Fairy in 2017. The company hasn’t introduced radical changes to Fernand Nault’s original choreography, in part because “there are always new dancers, and we have two weeks to rehearse,” soloist Jean-Sébastien Couture explains.
Myriam Simon plays the Snow Queen this year.