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From Russia, An American Tradition

Loudoun 'Nutcracker' Stays True to Its Roots

By Ellen Crosby
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page LZ01

Every Christmas it has become a tradition across North America that flowers will waltz, snowflakes will dance and mice will lose a battle against toy soldiers led by a nutcracker prince as ballet companies large and small perform Tchaikovsky's classic "The Nutcracker."

Over the years the familiar story has been adapted and changed to suit the whims of artistic directors. But audiences that watch Loudoun Ballet Company's performance, now in its 15th season, know they are seeing the original Russian ballet.

Anna Parker dances in the "Waltz of the Flowers" in Loudoun Ballet Company's "Nutcracker." (Photos Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Sheila Hoffmann-Robertson, the company's founder and a distant relative of E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of the story upon which the ballet is based, traveled to the former Soviet Union in 1982 to study the costumes, choreography and original score performed in St. Petersburg in 1892 by the Mariinsky Ballet.

"I spent a year after my trip to the Soviet Union looking at a lot of different 'Nutcrackers,' " Hoffmann-Robertson said. "I looked at everyone's version and found the common threads. I wanted to reconstruct the most basic version that was done for children.

"I consider 'The Nutcracker' very different from other ballets because the story is what's most important," she said. "I promised myself that a 5-year-old sitting in the last row would completely understand the story. I knew it would be a huge undertaking to reconstruct or preserve the original ballet."

Hoffman-Robertson, who retired as the company's artistic director last year, said the company's first performance in 1989 was less technically advanced than the one audiences see today.

"Initially the girls couldn't do the technique," she said. "Now we're at the highest technical level."

Jennifer Fisher, professor of dance at the University of California at Irvine, spent several seasons observing the Loudoun Ballet Company production and that of the National Ballet of Canada while doing research for her book "Nutcracker Nation," in which she explains the ballet's iconic importance and popularity in North America.

"Sheila has given Loudoun a gift with her 'Nutcracker,' " she said.

Fisher said despite the fact that "The Nutcracker" is a Russian ballet, it became popular and evolved in the United States, and now Americans claim it as their own.

"In the Soviet Union it was relegated to a school ballet since it was considered not well made and the least important of Tchaikovsky's ballets," she said. "It's only in America that it became associated with the Christmas season. It also changed from an adult production to one that revolved around children."

It is also, she said, a production that revolves around community. The family atmosphere and long-term fidelity of cast members in the Loudoun ballet have meant that entire families -- and even generations of families -- participate in the production.

"When we go out on that stage, Christmas has begun," said Susan Shumaker of Haymarket, who has been both the evil Mouse King and the mother of young Clara in the Loudoun production since the first performance.

Stage manager Lee Dillon of Leesburg, who is also onstage as a party guest in the opening scene, said the company used to hold open auditions when there weren't enough dancers from the Loudoun School of Ballet to fill the roles. Hoffmann-Robertson opened the school in 1977 and, two years later, founded the ballet company to give her students an opportunity to perform in their own community.

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