The children’s cast during the Party Scene in the Louisville Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” | Photo by Sam English

To most people, the word “ballet” summons one of two images: Odette from “Swan Lake” or a bucktoothed, big-eyed soldier made of polished wood with a huge hinged jaw and a little toy sword. They think of “The Nutcracker.”

Every year, a lot of work happens behind the scenes at any “Nutcracker” to make all the onstage magic, but the lavish sets, costumes and props return year after year.

For a company to get an all new production is a huge deal. In 2009, the Louisville Ballet, under then-Artistic Director Bruce Simpson, got a brand new “Nutcracker” courtesy of a $1 million gift from Brown-Forman.

Bruce Simpson | Photo by Eddie Dant

This year, that production marks its 10th voyage into The Land of Sweets, so Insider talked with Simpson and the internationally renowned choreographer Val Caniparoli, who created the dance for Louisville’s version of the holiday classic.

Simpson, a Scotland native, first worked with Caniparoli in Pretoria, South Africa, during Simpson’s 30 years with the State Theatre Ballet.

Then, as the ballet master at Texas Ballet Theatre, Simpson worked with Caniparoli again when the choreographer would come to stage ballets with the dancers.

When Simpson’s tenure as the artistic director for the Louisville Ballet began in 2002, Simpson brought that working relationship with him. Caniparoli set multiple ballets with the company.

Louisville’s new “Nutcracker” spent a good bit of time just gestating.

“I started planning three years before the premiere,” said Simpson.  

The first step was to find the perfect creative team. Simpson knew he needed a choreographer who could balance a lot of opposites.

“Understanding that it was an American ‘Nutcracker,’ taking place in Louisville, Ky., I wanted a balance of content in that I wanted a classical ballet designer who could function in the 21st century, but still had a 19th-century tradition,” he explained.

Val Caniparoli | Photo by Chris Hardy

Caniparoli is a choreographer who is praised as having the ability to bring other dance disciplines to his work, while still making it feel very much like classical ballet. Caniparoli said this comes from his unorthodox start in ballet.

“I didn’t study ballet until I was 20,” he told Insider. “I studied music, theater and all sorts of other things other than ballet. At 20 I went to San Francisco to audition for the (San Francisco Ballet) and I lied and said I was 16.”

The team also included two more internationally renowned heavy weights: set and costume designer Peter Cazalet with whom Simpson had worked in the past, and magician Marshall Magoon, who has worked with Caniparoli and the San Francisco Ballet multiple times over the years.

As they began work on the production, which took two years to finish, Simpson had some requests for Caniparoli.

“One of my requests to Val was that he make the snowflake scene really, really challenging so new dancers would have a challenge,” said Simpson. “And he continues to make it even more challenging.”

That’s right, even though it’s 10 years old, Caniparoli is still choreographing “The Nutcracker,” returning to Louisville every other year to fine tune his work.

“If a ballet survives one year and survives another year, that’s when the work starts,” said Caniparoli.

Unsurprisingly, creating an all new full-length ballet is a lot of work. And, according to Caniparoli, it’s not just the work itself.

“The expectations are high,” he explained. “It’s challenging because you know it can make or break a ballet company — that’s where they make a lot of their money for the rest of the year.”

Erica de la O and Kristopher Wojtera as Marie and the Nutcracker | Photo by Sam English

So it’s not a good time to take chances. Additionally, families and fans can get … let’s say … “attached” to parts of the ballet, as it has become part of their yearly festivities.

“You can’t do something bizarre,” said Caniparoli. “You’re replacing a ‘Nutcracker’ that has traditions, so you have an audience that can get angry.”

After all the work that went into the 2009 premiere, the team was happy. Simpson, who by that time was both artistic and executive director, kept his mind on the money and the magic.

“I think the biggest compliment we got after the premiere … one of the senior executives (of Brown-Forman) turned around and said to me, ‘Well, we gave you a million dollars, but you gave us a $5 million production.’”

That compliment reflected something Simpson already knew, that Cazalet, Magoon, Caniparoli and himself were world-class artists and professionals, and that they had crafted a “Nutcracker” that would  last the Louisville Ballet at least a decade and will continue for many Christmases to come.

“The Brown-Forman Nutcracker” continues through Dec. 23 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, 501 W. Main St. Tickets start at $35.50.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.