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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: November 25, 2014

Portland has two “Nutcrackers” for holiday crowds to choose from – and they’re very different

Written by: Ray Routhier

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.

The Nutcracker, Portland Ballet Company at the Biddeford City Theater in 1987. Elizabeth Drucker, center, as Clara, Erica Goodwin, left, Tammy Pelli, right, as children dance during The Christmas Party, Act I, scene one. Portland Press Herald file photo by Chris Church.

The Nutcracker, Portland Ballet Company at the Biddeford City Theater in 1987. Elizabeth Drucker, center, as Clara, Erica Goodwin, left, Tammy Pelli, right, as children dance during The Christmas Party, Act I, scene one. Portland Press Herald file photo by Chris Church.


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

“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.

The [German] Nutcracker

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.


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.
Soldiers: 19
Mice: 11
Christmas tree: More than 30 feet high Cast age range: 7 to 65
Performances: 3

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
Soldiers: 24
Mice: 10
Christmas tree: 30 feet high
Cast age range: 4 to 74
Performances: 7

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