The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 24, 2013

'Nutcracker' meets 'North Woods': Production fuses local history with holiday classic

Ballet company fuses local and state history with classic holiday production

By Amanda Dyslin
adyslin@mankatofreepress.com

---- — A hundred years ago in Mankato, kids would take their sleds to Main Street hill and shoot down the steep, slippery slope.

A scene in Fine Arts School of Ballet's “Nutcracker” will bring such a nostalgic scene alive, as Uncle Drosselmeier's niece, Marie, sleds down the hill, ends up in the middle of the river and becomes surrounded by coyotes and cougars.

… Don't remember a “Marie,” or cougars, in the classic “Nutcracker” ballet? Don't recall either the 19th-century production being set in Mankato?

Very true. But Director Annmarie Carlson Drake said she wanted to put a fresh spin on the holiday classic by creating a storyline unique to Mankato, New Ulm and Minnesota history, set in 1921.

So this summer, while keeping the same iconic music, Carlson Drake got to work writing a “A North Woods Nutcracker” that would feature historic characters such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Mankato-born soprano Florence Macbeth, the Hubbards and Maud Hart Lovelace.

“I thought the Fitzgeralds would be great party guests,” Carlson Drake said.

In addition to the company's own ballet dancers, she's soliciting the help of area actors and historical re-enactors (including Lolly Foy and Susan Hynes) to bring the characters alive. The ballet also will feature belly dancers because of Minnesota's Lebanese community at the time.

“It's really different,” she said.

The Blue Earth County Historical Society has provided historical research and photos, as well as period costuming and backdrop details to ensure authenticity. Randy Dinsmore created three massive backdrops to set the scenes: "Sledding down Main Street Hill,” “Como Park Conservatory,” and the interior of the Hubbard House.

“I really owe Randy,” Carlson Drake said. “They are better than the professional ones I've seen.”

The story will unfold like this:

In the first act, a lively Christmas Eve party scene is set against a backdrop of the interior of the Hubbard House. Uncle Drosselmeier of New Ulm presents his niece, Marie, with a Bavarian style Nutcracker that he has carved.

When it starts to snow, Marie and her friends go sledding down Main Street hill. But the light snow turns to a blizzard, and Marie becomes lost on the half-frozen river and surrounded by coyotes and cougars.

Marie's nutcracker comes to life as her brave prince and summons American and German soldiers, who join forces to protect her. An aviator crash lands and joins the battle, and a Red Cross nurse appears to treat the young soldier and others suffering from the battle.

Stranded on the river, Marie sees a vision of the Ice Palace from Mankato's 1920 Winter Carnival, and the aviator and nurse are transformed into the Ice King and Queen. She also dreams of the perpetual spring in the hothouse of the Como Park conservatory, where she had visited just before the Christmas party.

The audience is transported to St. Paul in act two, which represents “Marie’s pleasant reverie” and showcases the diverse heritages within Minnesota, including Welsh Singers of Cambria and the gymnasts known as the New Ulm Turners.

Also in act two, Zelda Fitzgerald finally realizes her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer (a desire she had too late in life) when she assumes the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet.

Carlson Drake said companies in Pittsburgh and San Francisco also have done similar localized “Nutcracker” productions, which partly inspired her idea.

“I wanted to put a new spin on it,” she said.

Carlson Drake admits, the undertaking has been immense. “It is a major, major production with a lot of set changes.”

"We are excited about the theme and hope the event is very successful," said Jessica Potter, executive director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society.

If you go What Fine Arts School of Ballet's "A North Woods Nutcracker" When 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. today (Nov. 24) in the Mankato West High School auditorium Tickets $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and children at the door Information www.fineartsballet.org