Cracking open ‘The Nutcracker’: 50 fun facts about shows staged by Minnesota dance companies

Photo by Katie Cannon
In Marie’s dream, her close friends return as their fantastical counterparts in the reimagined third divertissement of 'Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy' by the Minnesota Dance Theatre.

By Sheila Regan Star Tribune

November 28, 2023

Cracking open ‘The Nutcracker’: 50 fun facts about shows staged by Minnesota dance companies

Photo by Katie Cannon
In Marie’s dream, her close friends return as their fantastical counterparts in the reimagined third divertissement of 'Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy' by the Minnesota Dance Theatre.

By Sheila Regan Star Tribune

November 28, 2023

"The Nutcracker" has come to be a hallowed holiday tradition for its grandness, lush Tchaikovsky score and the land of dancing sweets.

What many don't realize is the months of preparation that go into these shows by wardrobe managers, running crew assistants and parent volunteers in addition to the time put in by the dancers and choreographers. Attention is given to the smallest of details and nimble work is required before each show and even between acts.

For instance, dancers playing angels have to be sewn into their costumes every night for Ballet Minnesota's production of "The Classic Nutcracker." And batteries have to be screwed into their electric candles. Nothing is left to chance, said co-founder and artistic director Cheryl Rist.

Zoe Charis, who plays the Snow Queen in the production, recalled the fastest costume change she has ever done with the company. It took all of one minute. That included changing out of a gown with a hoop skirt and removing earrings. In some cases, she has needed two people to help her change, though usually not more than that. "Beyond that, it becomes too many cooks in the kitchen," she said.

Most Minnesotan dance companies feature students in addition to professional ones for the holiday show. This makes it much larger than the other shows done during the year. So, instead of the 20 to 30 costumes that Ballet Co.Laboratory typically uses in its productions, it has 126 for its "Nutcracker in Wonderland," "just because of the sheer volume of people onstage," artistic director Zoe Emilie Henrot said.

While Continental Ballet and Metropolitan Ballet use air fresheners to keep their many delicate ballet costumes odor-free, Twin Cities Ballet and St. Paul Ballet spritz their fabrics with vodka.

A lot of Minnesota Dance Theatre's costumes have been around since the 1970s. Recently retired artistic director Lise Houlton would often take them home after the season's run and wash them herself. "That was my therapy," she said.

Houlton plans to do it again this year. "I somehow oddly kind of find pleasure in doing that," she said.

By the numbers

Year when composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker” was first performed
Year when Minnesota Dance Theatre founder Loyce Houlton first choreographed her version of the “Nutcracker”
Years VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle will have conducted MDT's “Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy” after this season
Years Robert Cleary will have performed as Drosselmeyer in Ballet Minnesota's “A Classic Nutcracker” after this season
Local companies celebrating milestone anniversaries this year (St. Paul Ballet & Metropolitan Ballet at 25; Continental Ballet & Ballet Minnesota at 35)
Number of dancers in Continental Ballet's “The Nutcracker”
Number of dancers in Twin Cities Ballet's “Minnesota Nutcracker”
Percent of cast members in Metropolitan Ballet's “Nutcracker” who are adults
Percent of cast members in Ashley Ballet Arts Academy's “The Nutcracker” who are adults
Number of student performers from Classical Ballet Academy of Minnesota in Ballet Minnesota's “Classic Nutcracker”
Age of Tchaikovsky if he were alive today
Age of oldest costume in Ballet Minnesota's wardrobe
Number of tutus needed for MDT's “Nutcracker Fantasy”
Number of romantic tutus (longer ones) needed for its shows
Layers in a tutu made by Ballet Minnesota's cofounder and artistic director Cheryl Rist
Months in advance Ballet Co.Laboratory begins working on costume spreadsheet for its “Nutcracker in Wonderland”
Number of people on its costume-build team
Number of wigs used in the production
Number of costumes used in the production
20 to 30
Number of costumes used in its non-“Nutcracker” productions
Number of Febreze bottles Metropolitan Ballet uses to eliminate odor from costumes
2 liters
Amount of vodka Twin Cities Ballet uses to eliminate odor from costumes
Number of mouse masks used by MDT
Number of mice dancers in Ashley Ballet's show
Number of presents the company displays onstage
Number of festive bows it displays
3 bags
Amount of rosin (hardened tree sap to prevent slipping) used for Metropolitan Ballet's “Nutcracker” run
Amount of rosin used by Twin Cities Ballet (Rosin is not allowed on Marley dance flooring.)
Number of theater venues Metropolitan Ballet will perform its “Nutcracker”
Number of orchestra musicians in its production
Number of union orchestra musicians in MDT's “Nutcracker Fantasy”
Number of generations of the same family that have led MDT's production
Number of choreographers whose work is shown in St. Paul Ballet's production
Number of dance instructors involved in its “Nutcracker Reimagined”
25 pounds
Amount of snow the St. Paul company uses
10 pounds
Amount of snow Ashley Ballet uses
Number of volunteers who help with the show's run
Number of volunteers in Twin Cities Ballet's production
Over 500
Number of hours volunteers work at the two companies
Total number of volunteers needed by MDT for its “Nutcracker Fantasy
Total number of volunteers needed by St. Paul Ballet
Total number of performers at the St. Paul Ballet production
30 seconds
Shortest amount of time onstage for young dancers in “Nutcracker in Wonderland”
8 or 9
Number of hours dancers rehearse daily leading up to Ballet Minnesota's “Classic Nutcracker”
1 year
Length of time Classical Ballet Academy of Minnesota spends preparing students to go en pointe
Age ballet dancers must be to dance en pointe
Number of sequential pirouettes performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy in Ballet Minnesota's production (The choreography calls for 12, but the dancer can do extra spins after that.)
Cost of bottle Ballet Co.Laboratory uses to spray paint ballet shoes
Cost for a student to participate in Metropolitan Ballet's “Nutcracker”
Cost for a student to participate in Ashley Ballet's “Nutcracker”

If you go

"Nutcracker Reimagined" by St. Paul Ballet

The classic and new interpretations are blended here and include works by CAAM Chinese Dance Theater, Ethnic Dance Theater and live music by Joe Strachan. Choreographers Helen Hatch, Christina Onusko and Alejandra Iannone's dances feature guest performers for the company's 25th anniversary.

If you go: Dec. 1-2 at O'Shaughnessy, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul. $35 suggested, $5-$50 pay-what-you-can;

"The Nutcracker" by Continental Ballet

Choreographer Riet Velthuisen presents a nonviolent version by eliminating the battle scene between the mice and toy soldiers. A special 35th anniversary celebration, which will include former students, will be held on opening night.

If you go: Dec. 2-10, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington. $35 on Dec. 2, $25 adults other performances, ages 12 and under, $13;

"Nutcracker in Wonderland" by Ballet Co. Laboratory

Blend E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and you get this whimsical production set to Tchaikovsky's score. Artistic director Zoé Emilie Henrot has fine-tuned the choreography to closely intertwine the two stories, including adding a battle between the Queen of Hearts' card soldiers and the rats from the original "Nutcracker."

If you go: Dec. 8-10, Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. $40 adults, $30 children/students;

"A Minnesota Nutcracker" by Twin Cities Ballet

Since 2015, the company's trademark has been to showcase Minnesota settings like St. Paul's Rice Park and Landmark Center. Last year, it replaced the "Tea" dance with a mosquito dance, giving a nod to the unofficial state bird. This year's production features a huge Mississippi River steamboat and a school of bluegill fish.

If you go: Dec. 8-10 at Ames Center, 12600 Nicollet Av. S., Burnsville. $28-$49;

"Nutcracker" by Metropolitan Ballet

Traditionally, Kenwood Symphony Orchestra performs live music for the Plymouth-based company's performances. Although performances will be held at two venues this year, Kenwood will perform live only at the Hopkins High School auditorium.

If you go: Dec. 9-10 at Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Dec. 16-17 at Lindbergh Auditorium, Hopkins High School, 2400 Lindbergh Drive, Minnetonka. $44-$112 at the Fitzgerald, $53-$69 at Lindbergh Auditorium;

"The Classic Nutcracker" by Ballet Minnesota

Cofounded by Andrew and Cheryl Rist in 1988, the company's production includes a fire-breathing dragon and a pas de deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Nicole Fedorov, a principal with the First State Ballet Theater in Wilmington, Dela., will take on the role of Sugar Plum. Kaitaro Kodama, also from First State, is the Cavalier.

If you go: Dec. 15-17 at O'Shaughnessy, 2004 Randolph Av., St Paul. $5-$45;

"The Nutcracker" by Ashley Ballet Arts Academy

Connor Simone and Jarod Boltjes of James Sewell Ballet are among the guest dancers in this production, for which 50 dancers auditioned for Clara's role.

If you go: Dec. 16-17, Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. 4th St., Mpls. $29-$42;

"Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy" by Minnesota Dance Theatre

After a three-year pause, MDT is bringing back its educational matinee for Minneapolis Public Schools students to attend for free. The production features a 44-piece orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle (Dec. 16) and Steve Amundson.

If you go: Dec. 16-23 at State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. $20-$130;