The Nutcracker might be the most famous full-length ballet of all time. Set to the exquisite music of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and adapted from Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, it was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892.
Initially the work was not a runaway success, with critics bemoaning the use of so many children in the production, and the size and appearance of the dancers. But since the 1960s, the ballet has been performed consistently—especially around Christmas—by major companies around the world, who derive a large part of their yearly income from the perennial suite.
The ballet is in two acts, first set in a family home on Christmas Eve and then in a strange and wonderful new land, where choreographers are called upon to display the full power of their creative imagination.
“My Nutcracker is based, of course, on the récit of Hoffmann,” says Eddy Toussaint, who founded Les Ballets Jazz and Ballet de Montreal in the 1970s, before being away from the Montreal dance scene for 20 years. Working internationally as artistic director, consultant, teacher and choreographer, Toussaint returned to Montreal and reopened his company, Ballet Eddy Toussaint de Montréal, just three years ago.
“In my version, Clara is not a little girl, but she is surrounded by children. The nutcracker becomes a prince who brings Clara to the land of snow, except the second act is set on a new planet. We still bring from the earth the Spanish, Russian and Arabian elements, and a surprise from the world of flowers. We have the grand pas de deux and the Sugar Plum Fairy is there, very different but still classical.”
When Toussaint uses the word “classical,” he means business.
He has reminded interviewers on several occasions that the word “ballet” in Les Ballets Jazz is significant. Though his production is billed as “futuristic,” the choreography is soundly grounded in classical techniques.
“Ballet has a tradition and vocabulary and you have to use it,” he says. “I have been reproached here in Montreal for being ‘too classical.’
“I disagree. I choose to perpetuate it, to continue bringing to kids that beautiful vocabulary that is classical. It is the base of everything, like scales are to music.”
Toussaint and his company regularly visit schools to perform excerpts from the classical repertoire. Le Ballet Eddy Toussaint is a training ground for new dancers, where Toussaint hopes his 5-year-old granddaughter will learn the art in its pure form. In the past he has expressed shock that some children in the schools he visits have never seen toe-shoes.
“There’s nothing better for me than to see their faces when Klara [Houdet] is dancing the Dying Swan,” he told an interviewer last year. “I’ve seen children almost cry at the end because they think she has died. That’s beautiful. That’s why I get up in the morning.”
Le Ballet Eddy Toussaint’s Nutcracker is December 14 and 15 at Salle Émile Legault, 613 Ste. Croix. $30. 514-383-9204.