NAC Dance: For André Lewis the Royal Winnipeg’s Nutcracker is about artistry first

The Nutcracker returns to the National Arts Centre. Photo: Rejean Brandt

As a young dancer the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s artistic director Gatineau native André Lewis says he loved performing in The Nutcracker, the annual Christmas ritual for ballet companies around the world.

“As a dancer I loved doing it. In those days we used to tour it a lot. I did around 30 performances of it. I could grow through it. I was on stage with an audience. I was in my element. It wasn’t ‘Oh no, not another Nutcracker’ for me; I never got tired of it. That might have been the case for some people but not me.

“I have lived with Nutcracker ever since I was a kid essentially. I can go watch it again and I have zero problem with it myself.

“As a dancer I got to do different parts over the years. I started in the corps. I got to do the lead male and I got to do Drosselmeier, which is the best part as far as I’m concerned. I loved it. It is a great work, it’s just been commercialized.”

André Lewis

It also has many variations.

Lewis, who was a dancer with the Royal Winnipeg many years before entering the ranks of management, danced in a version of The Nutcracker that was choreographed by the American John Neumeier, who heads the Hamburg Ballet.

It was something he changed as soon as he took the helm of the company.

“The Neumeier was not about Christmas. We could only do it every second year and not for many shows. People were tired of it. They wanted a Christmas Nutcracker. It was a beautiful version of the classic but it didn’t stick with the audience. The idea was you could do it any time, but really why would you want to do Nutcracker in April?”

So, about 20 years ago, in one of his first acts as artistic director, he made a change.

Lewis wanted to set the production at Christmas time in a well-to-do household in Canada (Winnipeg to be more precise). And, to that end, he asked two choreographers, Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon, to take a crack at different scenes in the production.

“Galina did Act Two and the snow scene in Act One and essentially she staged the original Russian version of The Nutcracker which premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg (Russia).

“I didn’t want the Russian version for the battle scene, the parlour scene or the bedroom scene. I wanted something more challenging and something set in turn-of-the-20th-century Winnipeg or any city in Canada where snow.

“I asked Nina Menon to do those sections (when she was resident choreographer) and she came up with a perfect transition from the real world to the battle world, to the world of fairies and the sugar plum.”

He says using two choreographers is not unlike the original ballets staged in Russia where (Marius) Petipa and (Lev) Ivanov were working together. In many works, he noted, one would do one act and one would do the other act.

Lewis acknowledges that The Nutcracker is done every year. But what is the artistic reason behind such scheduling?

“The original intent when we put this version on, almost 20 years ago, was to provide our artists with a technical and artistic challenge and provide them with an opportunity to perform.

“It’s not a game and it’s not a kids thing. Our version, if anything, is more demanding than many of the versions I have seen in the past because the parlour scene, which has traditionally been shown as a mix of very old people and very young people skipping about, is not what we do.

“We have young kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents. It’s a reflection of the kind of Christmas party that would be held in those days. Our teenagers are on point. They have to do real technique, not to say skipping is not real technique but it’s not as demanding technically as is classical ballet.

“Our snow scene is very demanding on the ladies. And Act Two requires significant technical and artistic mastery. Ultimately the performance is about Clara and the world she inhabits and how she responds to the various dilemmas that happen.

The Royal Winnipeg’s production includes two casts of young people totalling about 75. Lewis says there are, in each cast, eight angels, 12 polar bears, four Mounties, four mice, eight party-goers. The show calls for about three weeks of rehearsal with some of the work done well in advance. For the Ottawa run, the young people from the region were chosen in September. About 45 people come from Winnipeg, he says, making for a large crowd back stage.

The Royal Winnipeg has not staged The Nutcracker once. They performed Peter Pan instead and that worked out. But generally they do it every year. They also bring their version to the National Arts Centre every other year.

Nutcracker does often sell out and the fact that a company has a ready made version is an annual bonus, Lewis says.

“You have a ready vehicle that is paid for, and that you can mount in two to three weeks.”

The Nutcracker
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Where: Southam Hall
When: Dec. 6 to Dec. 10
Tickets, times and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.