The “Great Russian Nutcracker” ballet that a Moscow Ballet touring company performs Dec. 29 at the Midway Performing Arts Center in Hewitt not only differs from many American stagings of the Tchaikovsky holiday classic, but it’s changed from the version that many Waco residents saw in the same place in 2014.
Producer Akiva Talmi said that this year’s touring production features new costumes and a new set imagined by designer Carl Sprague, a concept illustrator for the new movie musical “La La Land.” There’s also a new Clara, in the person of ballerina Alisa Voranova, whose prince happens to be the dancer’s real-life husband and coach, Anatolie Ustimov.
A pre-show performance of Saint-Saens’ “Dying Swan,” danced by principal ballerina Ekaterina Aleavain and accompanied by Midway High School cellist Hayoung Moon and violinist Haeun Moon, 15-year-old twins, opens this year’s presentation, and the scores of local children and young dancers incorporated into the performance bring new faces as well.
“It’s the best tour, ever,” Talmi said during a recent tour break in Santa Ynez, California.
A corps of 36 Moscow Ballet dancers perform the “Great Russian Nutcracker,” whose storyline shifts slightly from the “Nutcracker” produced by many American companies. There’s still a young girl named Clara (Voranova), who dreams on Christmas evening that her wooden nutcracker soldier comes to life, fights off invading rats and, transformed into a prince, escorts her through a fantasyland, accompanied by Father Christmas and Snow Maidens.
In the “Great Russian Nutcracker,” that fantasy takes place in the Land of Peace and Harmony, not Sweets, and the dancers there represent animals standing in for countries (a dragon for China, a bear for Russia) rather than delectables like coffee, tea and chocolate. The touring production also features a signature “Dove of Peace,” formed by two dancers, and human-sized nesting matruska dolls.
For ballerina and audition director Mariia Skoruk, the Waco show represents the end result of the dancer auditions she conducted in Waco this fall. The children and older dancers ages 7 to 17 chosen at that time will take the Midway stage as snowflakes, Russian children and mice, with more experienced dancers appearing in supporting roles in the Land of Peace and Harmony.
Skoruk sees part of her childhood in the dancers she has auditioned for the national tour. She started at age 3, then began dancing with the Kiev State Opera and Ballet Theater when she was 10. Her “Nutcracker” roles started with partying children, then snowflake, soldier and one of the flowers in the Waltz of the Flowers — all in the same performance. “I had to change four times,” she said.
The “Nutcracker” in which she performed had a stronger emphasis on dance and less an accepted part of the holiday season, she said. “In the United States, there’s a lot of fluff in Christmas time,” she said.
Handling local auditions across the country and accompanying the Moscow Ballet company provide what Skoruk loves about her career as dancer: the opportunity to travel. She has performed in Europe and both North and South America, and this fall was an enjoyable one. “I love to travel in the United States. It’s my favorite country,” she said.
The “Great Russian Nutcracker” will come to Waco after performances in El Paso, San Antonio and Midland. After Waco, there’s a final stop in McAllen before the Moscow Ballet troupe returns to Moscow and Talmi goes back to setting up tours of other ballets such as “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet” with his company Talmi Entertainment.
Every tour has its stories, but this year’s American tour has one that’s hard to beat: the December day in Casper, Wyoming, when the temperature dropped to 31 degrees below zero and the company’s buses wouldn’t start. The temperature in Moscow that day: some 50 degrees warmer, at a balmy 18 degrees.
Talmi chuckled at the memory. “I had dancers tell me, ‘You bring me to America and then you take me to Siberia,’” he said.