The Nutcracker: Magic, Beauty and Collaboration

While The Nutcracker is a winter tradition for most, Grand Rapids Ballet’s creative director James Sofranko starts thinking about the shows as early as August. 

“That’s when we really get to know which dancers are going to be right for which roles this year, and start figuring out which people are going to be partnered with each other,” Sofranko said. “We may not be rehearsing it right away, but certainly our artistic coordinator and I start putting together a preliminary casting.” 

Casting a ballet requires matching each dancer to the best role based on their technique, style, and even personality. This is not an easy feat, especially this year, as the GRB has welcomed many new dancers.

“We have seven new dancers in the company, plus new apprentices and trainees, which are sort of new every year,” said Sofranko.

“We have five new men, so that’s half the men in the company. They’re coming to us from all over. We have a couple of new women as well, and one new woman is coming to us from Japan. We’re a 20-member company, so everyone’s dancing a lot.”

Aside from seeing new talent perform, attendees can expect the same Nutcracker performance they know and love. 

“This production was made in 2014 brand new for the Grand Rapids Ballet with a fantastic team of designers, so there’s not a lot that needs to be done to it every year,” he said. “We’re not making any big changes to sets, or costumes, or anything.”

But to Sofranko, the Nutcracker’s predictability is part of its charm. “It’s fun to have that tradition and just to expect your favorite parts, to know what’s coming. It’s become a phenomenon, especially here in America, that it has become almost synonymous with every ballet company.” 

Part of The Nutcracker’s popularity is its music, which is performed live by the Grand Rapids Symphony at each ballet. 

“I love having the Grand Rapids Symphony there for every show,” Sofranko said. “It’s just so important that we see the blend of the dance and the music together and I really want to make sure that’s a part of the tradition for all of us every year too.”

Beyond the music and dance, Sofranko hopes that this season’s shows can bring peace to the holiday season.

“In our world, we hear about a lot, and that can take a toll on our mental state. It can take a toll on our happiness. It’s worth remembering that there are a lot of beautiful things in the world too, and a lot of beautiful things that humans can create, and this is one of them,” Sofranko said. “Ballet and the arts and music are a big part of some of the best of who we are as a people, as a species on this planet, and it’s a positive experience for everyone.”

The Grand Rapids Ballet does more than just put on magical performances at the DeVos Performance Hall for the West Michigan community, though. They also host free shows for children from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“Children come to the theater for free and see Act One,” Sofranko said. “It’s another fulfilling moment for me to know that we can do that for kids, and many of them probably wouldn’t be able to come on their own with their families.”

GRB even hosts an annual tea party for families looking to extend the magic of The Nutcracker. The event is a purchased add-on experience and includes brunch at the Amway, alongside exclusive performances and storytelling.

“There’s fun for kids, and there’s also mimosas for adults too. It’s a pretty cool add-on experience if you’re looking to sort of do it up a little bit more,” Sofranko said.

While the Nutcracker tradition may start months before the holidays for the Grand Rapids Ballet, Sofranko is excited for another year of the beloved holiday tradition. 

“My favorite part of the Nutcracker season is just getting to opening night, like when the opening night finally gets here and all the work has paid off and the curtain opens and you hear the hush of the crowd and the audience is enthralled,” Sofranko said. “You see the kids coming out of the theater with smiles on their faces and the parents too, of course. That’s just really thrilling for me. 

“It reminds me how worth it it is to keep doing what we do, and all the behind the scenes effort that people don’t really know about.”

From casting and choreography to music and dancing, every detail is important to making the magic of The Nutcracker at the Grand Rapids Ballet. 

“It’s the music, the spirit, and the magic of a children’s tale. We all yearn for that youthful time in our lives again, and I think this gives us an hour and a half of remembering what that was like and just being swept up in it,” Sofranko said.

“Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the holidays a little bit, getting away from the stresses of your daily life, just sitting back and enjoying a story that you know and that you love with great music and fantastic dancing and sharing that with your family, it’s just so wonderful.

“Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

The Nutcracker
Grand Rapids Ballet w/ Grand Rapids Symphony
DeVos Performance Hall
Dec. 8-17