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Traditional Nutcracker Gets A Miami Makeover

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Katie Lepri
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Miami City Ballet's production of 'The Nutcracker' got new costumes and sets this year.

Up until this year, the Miami City Ballet had been doing the same version of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" since the mid-1980s. 

The ballet tells the story of the young girl Marie and the nutcracker she gets as a Christmas gift. After falling asleep, she wakes up in a fantasy world where she meets the mouse king, the sugar plum fairy, dancing snowflakes and the nutcracker, who comes to life.

It has become a classic during the holidays, but this year the company is presenting a whole new production that will look more like South Florida.

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Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Young dancers look on as the professional dancers rehearse.

At a rehearsal for "The Nutcracker," kids with perfect ballet buns shuffle across the floor holding short pieces of PVC pipe—stand-ins for miniature Christmas trees they’ll have on stage. They’re practicing the dance of the angels with the Sugar Plum Fairy performed by a Miami City Ballet dancer. As soon as they finish with their part, the young girls sit on the floor in pastel leotards watching the professionals with wide eyes, like they’re watching rock stars.

“They just had auditions and I’m like 'The Nutcracker.' I used to see that show!' So I got really excited,” said 10-year-old Noelle Basadre, who is still somewhat amazed at being cast in the show.

She plays an angel and a toy soldier and she hopes one day to be like one of the Miami City Ballet dancers.

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Credit Katie Lepri / WLRN
Some of the younger dancers wait for their cue in the wings.

The secret the kids don’t know as they figure out who they want to have sign their ballet shoes ... is that for the professional dancers who have been in "The Nutcracker" a dozen times, it’s the kids who make every year feel new.

On top of that, all of the sets and costumes are new this year as well.

“Not only did the production seem like it needed refurbishing — you know it was it was starting to show its age as most things to do,” said Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, “I  also thought the scale was off — it just seemed tiny.”

Since the mid-1980s, the company has performed a production that was created for a theater in Naples. That theater is much smaller than the Arsht or Kravis centers, where it is performed now.

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Credit Katie Lepri / WLRN
Dress rehearsal for The Nutcracker.

Getting "The Nutcracker" right is important, said Lopez, because for a lot of young people like Noelle, who grew up seeing the ballet, it’s a gateway into dance.

"The Nutcracker" is also financially important for ballet companies. Lopez says the production accounts for 30 to 40 percent of a typical company's annual budget. "The Nutcracker" helps keep the lights on.

“I just thought would be a wonderful investment for the organization because that's really what it is,” said Lopez. “Let's rethink it.”

For that creative touch, she turned to Isabel and Ruben Toledo, two world-renowned artists and designers from Cuba, now based in New York.

Isabel designed the dress Michelle Obama wore for her husband’s first inauguration.

And both of the Toledos had worked with Lopez before on a dance project, Isabel on the costumes and Ruben on the sets.

“We said 'sure' — we jumped in before we knew what we were doing,” joked Ruben.

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Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Young dancers rehearse 'The Nutcracker' at Miami City Ballet.

They started the process by going to see the show with Lopez in New York, then started brainstorming where the new Miami Nutcracker should be set.

“It could have been set in Mars. It could have been set in Cuba in the 1950s. We had all those ideas,” said Ruben.

They settled on sort of a  1920s dinner party as the feel of the show.

“The one thing that was important for us is to be able to also get the feeling of Miami,” said Isabel.

There are Nutcrackers all over the country. But for the Toledos, who came from Cuba to Miami in the 1960s before going on to New York, the new version for Miami City Ballet needed to feel like this place.

Much of that comes from the colors of the natural landscape.

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Credit Artwork courtesy of Ruben Toledo.
Sketch for the new Hot Chocolate costume.

“The way the sun reflects off of the ocean and into the skies is magnificent here,” said Ruben Toledo. “You get these sherbet-colored sun-ups and sundowns. It lends itself so much to this story.”

The Toledos’ Nutcracker starts in a cold, cozy house somewhere up north.  “And then [you are] let free into this world of endless skies,” said Ruben.

“In a way, the original [production] can be more about baked goods. I did a lot more [tropical] fruits.”

Mother Ginger has a skirt that emulates an art deco building. Also, at the end, they have rethought how Marie and the prince exit the stage. There’s no sleigh to be found. It’s a more warm-weathered exit. (We don’t want to give it all away, so you might have to go see it.)

"The Nutcracker" is a story about travel in a way, through a new and unfamiliar place, about growing up and rising to the occasion.

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Credit Artwork courtesy of Ruben Toledo.
Sketch for the new Nutcracker set.

“And I think, being immigrants, [we] are very aware of what that feels like, what it feels like to invent your future,” said Ruben. “You take the stimulation that's around you now, but you reinterpret it, re-form it and it comes out anew. So I think that's what we tried to do with this Nutcracker.”

This new production, like the last one, will be performed for the next three decades or so. And the Toledos know it will morph over time.

“It’s now the dancers owning this. It becomes part of them,” said Isabel. “If everyone loves it everyone feels joy from it, then it has longevity.”

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Credit Artwork courtesy of Ruben Toledo.
Sketch for the new Sugarplum Fairy costume.

“We've created this organism because the lighting people, the projectionist, the sound, the orchestra, the dancers, everyone involved has put in their ingredients. So, depending on who's playing with those ingredients, you can come up with 100 different versions [of the show],” said Ruben.

And it could be in one of those permutations that Noelle and the other young dancers in the show now will be performing as a professional 10 years down the road.

Or in 30 years, the kids who see it this year could see with it with their own children.

The Miami City Ballet’s Nutcracker runs through Sunday at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami and then  Dec.  28-30 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.