On a Sunday afternoon — one of many Sundays since March — Erin Ceragioli watches with unflinching gaze as a drama plays out before her.
Some greedy mice steal a king’s sausages and get beheaded for it, and when their mother bites the princess in revenge, a curse of ugliness falls upon first the princess, then the dashing young man who saves her.
It’s an old story, but one that hasn’t been told in ballet – until now. It’s the story that comes before and explains a far more familiar ballet: “The Nutcracker.” And Ceragioli and her troops at Tacoma City Ballet have spent nine months and $80,000 to put it on stage. Their world premiere of “The Tale of the Hard Nut” opens at the Pantages this weekend.
“We (recreated) the scenery and the costumes from the original 1893 ‘Nutcracker’ 15 years ago,” explains Ceragioli, of where she got the idea for a prequel. “And in all that research I discovered ... ‘The Tale of the Hard Nut.’ So I had always wanted to do the prequel.”
Like “The Nutcracker” itself, “The Tale of the Hard Nut” is a story by 18th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffman. Its plot detailing how an ugly curse was put first on Princess Pirlipat, and then on the young man who saved her by cracking open the hardest nut in the world, foreshadows and explains some of the curious things about the “Nutcracker” ballet that audiences are probably used to but never quite understand: why Clara’s Christmas toy turns into a hero, why he fights mice, why he has a Nutcracker-shaped face and why he loses it when she falls in love with him. The prequel also foreshadows many of the dances from Act II of the ballet.
“(Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer) tells her that story when he comes to the party and brings her the Nutcracker,” says Ceragioli, referring to the Christmas party scene that opens the traditional ballet. “He tells her why we have a Nutcracker.”
But the other genesis for the prequel was the desire for a new twist on an old chestnut. While ballet companies all over the world do “The Nutcracker” in various forms, Tacoma City Ballet, now 58 years old, has been performing “The Nutcracker” for 30 years in the Pantages theater, and little has changed in the elaborate, historically accurate interpretation.
This year, Ceragioli was determined to give it a new angle.
But it was hard work. A ballet begins with a libretto — a typed storyline, often with choreographic notation — and Ceragioli began writing hers early this year. Weekly rehearsals began in March, stepping up during summer since many TCB dancers are students. A historical set was taken out of storage, and a new drop — a gold-green mashup of clock parts to show the passage of time during the prequel plot — was specially painted in California at a cost of $5,000. After many consultations with Christophe Chagnard, who has conducted the Northwest Sinfonietta for the production for 15 years, Ceragioli made the decision to use music from Act II of the existing ballet, but had to pay an arranger to rewrite it.
Then there were costumes, props, set pieces — all of which had to be designed and made from scratch. Ceragioli painted her own set of seven Mouse costume designs to turn over to her wardrobe department, who were still busily sewing right up until Thanksgiving on the TCB studio stage. Other new characters such as the King, the Queen, some cats that stand guard and two versions of the Princess (young and teenage) all needed costumes as well.
Then came the set pieces.
“I hadn’t heard of the prequel, like most folks, I guess,” says Salvatore Lucente, flipping through pencil designs in his workshop garage. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing.”
Burly and kind, with a hoarse voice and dozens of tattoos, Lucente doesn’t look like your average ballet set director – or dancer, for that matter. He’s actually a stone-cutter by trade. But when his daughter started taking lessons years ago, he got pulled into the TCB world, using his skills to create props. He’s used to requests from Ceragioli for any number of unusual items, such as the life-size mousetrap for the prequel.
“(Erin) explained to me how the mice get trapped and squashed ... so I looked up (an 18th-century) mousetrap,” says Lucente, who also dances the role of the prequel’s King. After some thought, he came up with a large wardrobe into which the mice dancers can climb, pull down a jail grille and chain themselves up.
“How do you show them being beheaded?” laughs Ceragioli. “I can’t — it’s a family show!”
After the mice are led away, the whole thing turns around to become the princess’ bed, purple and gold. To add to the challenge, Lucente had to construct the piece to fit in the Pantages’ tiny wing space, and be light enough for two young dancers to roll on stage.
Then he moved onto the next item — making a lute out of a canoe paddle.
Finally, after months of rehearsal, the company took the production to the theater this week, rehearsing with the orchestra before the six weekend shows. Ceragioli estimates the prequel has cost her company about $80,000.
“Putting on a new ballet is a colossal amount of work,” says TCB assistant director Joel Myers.
Is it worth it?
“It’s extremely hard for ballet,” the director says. “ ‘Nutcracker’ pays the bills. And ‘Nutcracker’ hasn’t been as prosperous since the recession.”
“It’s partly economical,” Ken Johnson agrees. He’s the co-director of Ballet Northwest in Olympia, which also has a long “Nutcracker” tradition. “Where theater companies might do ‘A Christmas Carol’... For ballet companies everywhere, it’s a huge part of what we do.”
“I don’t know (if it will pay off),” says Myers, who also dances many roles in both the prequel and main “Nutcracker.” “We can’t say until we get the final receipts. But investing in something like ‘Nutcracker’ is a long-term prospect. Maybe you only see 20 percent come back this year, but it will continue to run for years.”
And Tacoma City Ballet is banking on both the novelty of the production and the connection to the existing ballet to sell tickets.
“For children that have not seen the ballet before, it’s all new,” points out Christophe Chagnard. “But for the rest of us ... it’s a good thing to branch out into something new.”
“People in Tacoma like their traditional ‘Nutcracker,’ ” says Ceragioli. “But it’s still there. You can come to the theater and make a new friend and still have your old friend there with you.”
“This is gonna really help you understand the entire story of why there’s that face that’s so famous now,” says Lucente. “That Nutcracker. That’s what ... will be the best (thing) for the normal guy.” rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com ‘Nutcracker’ Roundup
Several productions of this beloved ballet can be found around Puget Sound.
n Pacific Northwest Ballet
Where: McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus Dec. 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23; 2 p.m. Saturday, plus Dec. 14, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24; 1 p.m. Sunday, plus Dec. 15, 22, 26, 28, 29; 5:30 p.m. Sunday, plus Dec. 15, 22, 26, 27, 28
Information: 206-441-2424, pnb.org
n Dance Theatre Northwest
Where: Mount Tahoma High School auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma
When: 2:30 and 7 p.m. Dec. 14; 4 p.m. Dec. 15
Tickets: $22-$26; children, seniors half price
Information: 253-778-6534, dancetheatrenorthwest.org
n Tacoma Performing Dance Company
Where: Stadium High School theater, 111 N. E St., Tacoma
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 21; 2 and 6 p.m. Dec. 22
Tickets: $22 and $18
Information: 253-752-8530, tacomaperformingdance.org
n Washington Contemporary Ballet
Where: Mount Tahoma High School auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 22; 2 p.m. Dec. 23
Tickets: $18 and $15
Information: 253-474-4312, wcbdance.org
n Ballet Northwest
Where: Washington Center for Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13, 14, 20, 21; 2 p.m. Dec. 14, 15, 21, 22
Tickets: $23-$30 general; $19-$26 seniors, students; $14-$18 those younger than 12
Information: 360-753-8585, balletnorthwest.org online gallery
Find more photos from this Tacoma City Ballet production on our website. Go to thenewstribune.com/photos. TCB goes nuts
What: “The Nutcracker,” with prequel “The Tale of the Hard Nut”
Who: Tacoma City Ballet with Northwest Sinfonietta
When: 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma