The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Nutcracker has become synonymous with the season -- not just for the Winnipeggers who attend every year, but for the company's dancers as well.
Few dancers know Nutcracker like soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets. The Kiev-born dancer has danced in every production of the current version -- which features choreography by Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon -- since it was commissioned in 1999. He's performed in almost every role; in fact, many of the dances were originally choreographed with him in mind. This year he'll reprise his role as the Nutcracker Prince, alternating with company newcomer Artjom Maksakov and guest artist Liang Xing.
Having a long memory can be both a blessing and a curse for Dovgoselets.
"For me, I see all the things that have changed throughout the years because so many people have been doing it," he says with a laugh. "It bothers you a bit that it hasn't been preserved the way it was choreographed, but I can step in when people get injured. (The choreography) is in my body, so I don't really need to rehearse."
Despite being a part of it for over a decade, Dovgoselets never tires of the venerable classic and its thrilling Tchaikovsky score.
"It's a tradition," he says. "A few years ago we were thinking about alternating with Peter Pan (which made its RWB debut in December 2006) and it felt like something was missing. Nutcracker is such a Christmas tradition. It's like going to see Santa. Some people say, 'Oh Nutcracker again,' but to me I actually get excited. I love our production, too."
Indeed, RWB's take on an old holiday chestnut is something special. The 1999 update was originally commissioned to replace the well-toured John Neumeier version, which strips the ballet of its Christmas connotations and instead takes place at Clara's birthday party. "It was a beautiful Nutcracker, but the problem with it was that it wasn't about Christmas and we could only do it every second year," explains artistic director André Lewis. "So, we decided to invest in a new one."
Set in Winnipeg at the turn-of-the-last-century in a Wellington Crescent mansion, RWB's current production features a host of warm Canadian touches, such as a spirited hockey game, Hudson Bay blankets, aurora borealis, Mounties and more.
While the choreography is informed by the classic Russian, it's not as austere. "That was really important to me, to make it children-friendly," says Lewis, pointing to the beloved Filbert the Bear as an example. "The bear brings the house down, It was very cleverly done by Nina. It's well-imagined."
For new soloist Maksakov, who joined the company this season, that levity is welcome.
"I've danced so many different versions of it, and I've watched so many different versions of it from the audience as well, so I can say this is a very interesting Nutcracker -- especially the bear," he says. "Of course, if you take the traditional version, there is no bear and it's more serious and it's not that fun. But I think that, in North America, it became a Christmas tradition for families. It has to become a little bit more fun for children as well."
Maksakov has an emotional connection to the role of the Nutcracker Prince. It was his first big role in Estonia, one of his stops prior to joining the RWB this year.
"Every time I dance it, for me it's so special," he says. "All the memories come back and I feel the emotions I had when I first came onstage. I was almost crying because the music, when the Nutcracker comes in during the battle, it's so powerful that I feel like my tears are coming."
Liang, a former principal dancer at The National Ballet of China who joined the RWB as a guest artist for the 2013-14 season and will be the third prince in the production, also appreciates the update. "For me, it's brand new," he says. "In my original company, it was Chinese style so it was totally different. Here, it feels so warm. I like this warmth."
For seasoned vets like Dovgoselets, touring keeps the show fresh. The company is fresh off a successful run in Ottawa, returning to the nation's capital after four years. "People seemed to love it -- it was 100 per cent sold out," Dovgoselets says, adding that people were even asking for a DVD version to take home with them.
"The response was amazing," Lewis agrees. "People missed it after four years, and there were standing ovations every night."
The company also works hard to ensure that Nutcracker never becomes as stale as last year's freezer-burned fruit cake.
"We don't do so many times it becomes routine," Lewis says. "As an audience member, there's always new things to see. Every year we work on it. It's a production we built here, so we have that flexibility, whereas if we had something coming overseas I'd tend not to want to change it. You can adapt to the talent of our artists, but also make it stronger." (The role of Drosselmeyer, for example, has been given more meat this year.)
And the local demand remains strong; Lewis expects 10,000 people will take in Nutcracker over its 11-day run. Nostalgia is a driving force, to be sure, but Lewis says it's also because RWB does it up right.
"I think, worldwide, Nutcracker has endured because it is associated with Christmas. For our version, I think it's because of the production values and the quality of the dance. It's a big production, and it's our largest production. And I wanted it that way. If you're going to do it every year, it can't be chintzy."