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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


Da Nutcracka 
Story By: Liza Simon

Photos By: Elyse Butler

Ballet Hawaii has staged a performance of The Nutcracker just about every year since 1980. But this holiday season the Honolulu-based ballet company and school will do something a little different. No, not a different ballet. Ballet Hawaii tried that once, and its supporters insisted on bringing back The Nutcracker. Lesson learned. The Nutcracker must go on. But rather than the faraway Bavarian village where the Yuletide classic is traditionally set, this year’s production unfolds in the courtly splendor of the mid-nineteenth-century Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

The first act of the two-act ballet draws loosely from what is perhaps the first written account of a Hawai‘i holiday party with an indoor Christmas tree. That was on Christmas Eve of 1858 at Washington Place, the mansion where Crown Princess Lili‘uokalani once lived. Complementing the elegant royal aura onstage are period costumes created by local celebrity designer Kini Zamora, who made a name for himself on the fashion reality TV show Project Runway.

In the second act, Ballet Hawaii dispenses with the dancing bonbons and other European confections populating the Land of the Sweets in the original Nutcracker and presents instead a lush tropical garden with soaring ‘iwa (frigate birds) and other fauna and flora of the Hawaiian Islands. A well-known volcano goddess also has a role, doing what she does best and bringing some surprises.

The Island-style Nutcracker marks Ballet Hawaii’s fortieth anniversary and is intended as a thank-you to supporters for helping classical ballet to grow in Hawai‘i. Parents and grandparents who once performed as the toy soldiers or the sugar plum fairies of their respective Ballet Hawaii generations bring their children and grandchildren to the company’s summer intensive programs.

Before the kids get wooed away by the beach, many get hooked on the possibility of being selected as one of the 150 or so dancers in the Nutcracker cast, which is fortified each year with guest stars from top international companies, including the Bolshoi and the New York City Ballet.

For the 2016 revamp, docents at Washington Place—now the residence of Hawai‘i’s governor—joined with Hawaiian cultural practitioners as guides in the making of the show. “The whole joy of the project,” says Ballet Hawaii’s artistic director Pamela Taylor-Tongg, “was being able to dig deep into Hawaiian tradition so we can bring out beauty and honor the uniqueness of where we live.”