Some people might have to drive hundreds of miles this holiday season to find a ballet company putting on “The Nutcracker.” In greater Portland you pretty much can’t toss a snowball without hitting a Sugarplum Fairy or a Mouse King.
Two different companies are dancing “Nutcrackers,” for a total of 10 public performances. First there’s Maine State Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” with seven shows Saturday through Dec. 7 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Then there’s Portland Ballet’s “The Victorian Nutcracker,” with two shows Dec. 13 and 14 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center, and one show at Merrill Auditorium on Dec. 17.
Both feature the story of a little girl who gets a toy nutcracker for Christmas, and the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the ballet in the 1890s. There’s a festive holiday party, plus the beloved fantasy scenes of a snowy wonderland.
Each company features its own dancers as well as students from all over southern Maine. Maine State Ballet has a cast of more than 280, about 100 of which are in each show. Portland Ballet’s cast numbers about 130. That’s not counting the army of volunteers both have backstage and behind the scenes.
So how do you choose which “Nutcracker” to go to? Lots of people simply pick the production because a child or neighbor they know is in it. With some people’s holiday calendars, sometimes a production is chosen based on what night people are free. But beyond those reasons, there are some key differences that set each production apart:
“The Victorian Nutcracker” is set in Portland in the late 1800s, with the party scene set in the parlor of the Victoria Mansion on Danforth Street, and snow scenes set in Deering Oaks. The local party scene’s decor is modeled after the furnishings at the mansion, which was built in the 1850s and is open to the public. Characters in “The Victorian Nutcracker” are named for real Portland people who lived in the late 1800s. Ruggles Morse, who built Victoria Mansion, is the party host in the production. His niece, Olivia Higgins, is the girl who gets the nutcracker as a present. In most productions, including the Maine State Ballet’s, the little girl is called Clara.
“It’s fun to read the program and see the names of all these real Portland people. On stage (cast members) try to capture the feel of that period in their acting,” said Nell Shipman, associate artistic director and resident choreographer for Portland Ballet.
Maine State Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is set in Germany in the early 1800s, starring Clara. Its version includes three pieces of choreography created by renowned choreographer George Balanchine, who died in 1983. Those include scenes involving the snowflakes, “The Red Flutes,” and “The Waltz of the Flowers.”
Maine State Ballet founder Linda MacArthur Miele studied ballet with Balanchine and later danced in the New York City Ballet Company. She said her “good relationship” helped her get the rights to the Balanchine pieces, and that Maine State Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is the only one in Maine to include Balanchine choreography.
Also, both companies are accompanied by orchestras at Merrill Auditorium, but Portland Ballet dances to recorded music for the Westbrook performances. Several thousand people will see the two “Nutcracker” productions, as Merrill Auditorium holds nearly 2,000 people and Westbrook Performing Arts holds 1,000.
“The Nutcracker” has become a Portland tradition spanning several generations and accessible to thousands of people. The two companies put on shows for school groups as well.
“It’s just a great way to ring in the holidays,” said Shipman.
PORTLAND ME - DECEMBER: The Nutcracker, Portland Ballet Company, at Portland High School auditorium. Kate McKenney, of Cumberland, in the lead role. tony and Karen Montanaro pictured with her at the Victoria Mansion. (File Photo)
BIDDEFORD, ME - NOVEMBER: The Nutcracker, Portland Ballet Company, 1990, at the Biddeford City Theater. Scott Porter as The Tin Soldier. (File Photo)
Staff Photo by Jill Brady, Sun, Nov 25, 2001: Uncle Drosselmeyer and Clara bandage a "wounded" Nutcracker during scene 1 of Maine State Ballet's production of the Nutcracker at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
BIDDEFORD, ME - NOVEMBER: The Nutcracker, Portland Ballet Company, 1990, at the Biddeford City Theater. The Nutcracker Prince fights The Mouse King. (File photo)
Clara and the Nutcracker allMSTcredits are C.C. ChurchBal - s 2009 - 11 Nut - 00022
The Nutcracker, Maine State Ballet, 1996.
Aimee Bennet as Clara in Maine State Ballet’s 1992 production.
Maine State Ballet’s 2000 production of “The Nutcracker.”
PORTLAND, ME - DECEMBER: The Nutcracker, Maine State Ballet, 1995. Mary Stride as the Sugarplum Fairy, Frederic Bernier, her Cavalier. (Maine State Ballet/C.C. Church)
Ellie Sato as Olivia and John Saccone as the Godfather in Portland Ballet’s “The Victorian Nutcracker” in 2013.
Nell Shipman and Tyler Sperry as the Snow Prince and Princess taken by Stuart Nudelman in 2007 -snow lift nell tyler PBC
PORTLAND BALLET’S “THE VICTORIAN NUTCRACKER”
WHEN: 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 14; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17
WHERE: Westbrook Performing Arts Center (Dec. 13 and 14), 471 Stroudwater St.; Merrill Auditorium (Dec. 17), 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $32 and $38 (includes fee) in Westbrook; $20 to $55 (includes fee) in Portland
First performance: 1992
Setting: Victoria Mansion and Deering Oaks, Portland, late 1800s
Main character: Olivia Higgins, niece of Victoria Mansion owner Ruggles Morse.
Christmas tree: More than 30 feet high Cast age range: 7 to 65
MAINE STATE BALLET’S “THE NUTCRACKER”
WHEN: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Dec. 5; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 6; 2 p.m. Dec. 7
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $20 to $60 (includes fees)
First performance: 1976
Setting: Germany, early 1800s, as in the original
Main character: Clara, as in the original
Christmas tree: 30 feet high
Cast age range: 4 to 74