Nutcracker changed lit­tle since 1964

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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.

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