Russian composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky passed away a few months after the release of “The Nutcracker” (1892), a two-act ballet for which he wrote the music.
Critics and audiences alike thought Tchaikovsky’s compositions were terrific. But they found the staging — aswarm with child actors and defined by a fantasy-bound narrative — sort of grating. It flopped. Tchaikovsky wasn’t a fan either.
“This ballet is far weaker than ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ — no doubt about it,” he wrote to his nephew in a letter.
But like many artists who see their undersung-at-the-time works prove popular and influential after they’ve died — Johann Sebastian Bach, Vincent Van Gogh, Nick Drake — “The Nutcracker” went on to become one of Tchaikovsky’s tentpole works. Reevaluation came about in part due to ballet companies working out the kinks instilled by the original play and the re-popularization of the music, which became a fixture in the cultural consciousness especially after it was committed to wax.
Because of its late-in-life ubiquity, “The Nutcracker” has turned into a show that dependably helps dance companies stay afloat. According to Crain’s New York Business, restaging the piece can bring a ballet company 40-45 percent of its annual revenue.
One group that has long been committed to honoring Tchaikovksy’s work is the Emerald Ballet Theatre (EBT), a dance ensemble based in Bellevue. For the last 13 years, the company remains the only one on the Eastside to put on “The Nutcracker” with a live orchestra. Next month, on the weekends of Dec. 7 and 14, the troupe will be doing shows at the Northshore Performing Arts Center Foundation (NPACF) of Bothell.
The performances are accompanied by an orchestra led by David Waltman, and is helmed by Viktoria Titova, the artistic director of EBT. According to Leah Parman, EBT’s marketing and communications manager, a standout aspect of the shows are that they’re faithful to the Vaganova tradition, a heralded style of ballet most popular in Tchaikovsky’s home country.
EBT has done “The Nutcracker” at the Bothell site since December 2008. The partnership that has since blossomed is personal to Titova, who first performed at the NPACF when she was a kid.
“When Emerald Ballet Theatre opened, I wanted EBT to perform there,” Titova recalled in an email. “EBT was very young (1 year old), but an ambitious company.”
John Lehrack, who has been the managing director of NPACF for the last two years, said that the center loves working with the EBT, and appreciates how much regional attention the company brings to NPACF.
“It helps bring more community awareness of what else we do as a foundation and what our other shows do,” Lehrack said.
In the years since its first performance, the EBT’s take on “The Nutcracker” has incorporated notable guest stars and garnered popular acclaim. On previous dates, stagings included dancers from acclaimed ensembles like the San Francisco Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. Last year, EBT was a finalist for the ParentMap’s Golden Teddy award in the “Can’t-Miss Holiday or Seasonal Event” category.
For much of its run, EBT has also worked to be as accessible to the public as possible. For the last seven years, the company has opened its dress rehearsal to nonprofit children’s groups, veterans and seniors for discounted prices.
“Community outreach is part of EBT’s mission,” Parman said in an email.
This year’s production has been in rehearsal since September (following a chance for community auditions the same month), and includes about 170 youth and adult performers across two casts. Twenty-seven new costumes have had to be made. Though the preparation process can be challenging, especially when having to also coordinate with a theater and an orchestra, Titova said an “incredible” team of faculty, staff and volunteers help the process.
The 2019 staging of “The Nutcracker” features some performers who have been with the EBT for years but are getting leading parts for the first time.
One of them is Mckenzie Wilson, who previously had a major role in the academy’s version of “Coppélia.” Wilson, who has been with the theater for the last nine years (she started when she was 7), said while essentially every EBT dancer gets a part of some kind, the auditions are necessary to garner bigger parts — an opportunity she took advantage of. Wilson will be playing the pivotal Sugar Plum Fairy the second weekend of the show.
“It’s very hard because it’s a very challenging role, but it’s a good challenge,” Wilson said. “We’re just all working very hard.”
Hard work has been instrumental to EBT’s successes throughout its decade-plus history. And even the smallest of a sign that it’s being appreciated by those taking it in is satisfying. For Titova, part of what makes her work gratifying is the audience’s enthusiasm.
“To hear them clapping at the end of the show, and knowing they enjoyed our work,” Titova said. “That is the biggest reward for the artists.”
For more information about the Northshore Performing Arts Center Foundation’s upcoming shows, go npacf.org/events. For more information about the Emerald Ballet Theatre, go to www.emeraldballet.org/20192020-season. To donate to the EBT’s performance season, go to www.emeraldballet.org/annual-fund-2019.