Press: Frazier History Museum and Louisville Ballet team up for ‘Nutcracker’ retrospective

By Eli Keel for Louisville Insider

November 22nd, 2017

Louisville has its share of holiday traditions, including the Louisville Ballet‘s “Nutcracker,” a crowd favorite that has been in production locally for 60 years. That’s a lot of memories, and this holiday season you can look back at some of those memories and what it took to make them.

Thanks to a partnership between the Louisville Ballet and the Frazier History Museum, “Nutcracker the Exhibition: 60 Years of Magic and Majesty” will feature photos, sets, props and newspaper clippings that span the history of the production. It also has a special section that focuses on the thousands of children who have performed in the show, including some interactive elements for kids.

The exhibition was curated in part by a longtime Louisville Ballet performer, Helen Daigle. She spoke with Insider during “Night of Thousand Thanks,” a new event where the ballet hosts and toasts the donors and other friends of the company.

“I have many official titles,” said Daigle. “I’m a dancer with the company and have been for many years. I’m also the children’s cast manager for ‘Nutcracker.’ ”

That connection to the many child performers in ‘Nutcracker’ through the years is a big part of why Daigle was chosen to help with the exhibit.

“I gathered a lot of information for them about children who had been with the cast,” she said.

A whole section of the retrospective is dedicated to the thousands of kids who have performed in the ballet over the years. Census data Daigle gathered helped inform an interactive part of the exhibit, which lets kids know what role they might play if they were in “Nutcracker.”

“When they audition, we pair them based on their height,” she explained. “Soldiers have to be between this height and that height, angels are the smallest, and that’s how we kind of decide who goes where. And also based on their ability, of course.”

Daigle’s first “Nutcracker” with the Louisville Ballet was 20 years ago, and since then she has performed many different roles and has seen a few variations of the ballet come and go — including the Alun Jones version that was performed for decades before 2009 and the new Brown-Forman version that’s still performed today.

Set designs, costumes and props from old productions are a way to see the ballet’s past up close. Among the other artifacts of the exhibit are 22 pairs of plain points shoes, the number of shoes a ballerina gets from the ballet every year.

The shoes are mostly ones that have been worn by Louisville Ballet dancers. And it gives people a chance to see the reality behind the illusion. From far away, the point shoes are perfect. Up close? Not so much.

“One of the pairs in the exhibit is from one of our dancers, and the first thing she does is take the shoe apart and cut half of the inside out, because that’s how they fit her best,” said Daigle. “Each dancer does something totally different to their point shoes to make them fit them the way they need them to.”

Many of the shoes also are signed by the ballerinas who wore them.

The exhibit stretches back to the very first production by the Louisville Ballet in 1956, when it received positive reviews. Using news clippings and other media to present a timeline, ballet aficionados will see old friends looking young again.

“There are pictures of Alun (Jones) and Helen (Starr) from when they are very young,” said Daigle, referencing two longtime leaders of the company, now retired.

Daigle spoke glowingly about the entire exhibit, but she has a favorite part — a sectional view of a tutu, the traditional costume that includes a multi-layered skirt that stiffly stands out from a dancer’s waist.

“It is beautiful — it looks like a chandelier or something, hanging in the middle of this alcove, and you see how much fabric … and it’s all these layers, and they’re all slightly cut differently, and it’s pulled apart so it’s this deconstructed thing,” she said.

Families visiting the Frazier Museum on Sunday, Dec. 3, will get a chance to learn a little of the choreography from the show, when Daigle will teach a short community workshop. That workshop is not limited to experienced dancers or children.

“It’s for anybody,” she said. “We just do a little basic warm-up … and it’s a family workshop, so it’s a partnered dance I teach.”

That means parents get to pick up their little ones with just a little extra flair and grace, like the dancers in one of the show’s many enchanting pas de deux.

“Nutcracker the Exhibition: 60 Years of Magic and Majesty,” continues at the Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., through Jan. 7. And the Louisville Ballet’s “Brown-Forman Nutcracker” runs Dec. 9-23 at the Kentucky Center, 501 W. Main St.