It’s hard to believe now, but when Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker premiered in St Petersburg in 1892, the production was a resounding flop. Long left to the dustbin of dance history, it began appearing on North American stages in the mid-1950s. A decade later it was a staple in nearly every company’s repertoire, often generating a major portion of their revenue.
So what’s it like to be in one of the most famous ballets of all time for a young dancer just starting out today?
“It’s something you can get bored of because you do a production every single year,” says dancer Ryan Vetter. “At the same time it’s so energizing to perform because the house is packed with kids who are loving their lives when they are watching it, like we all were when we first saw it.”
Hoping to stand out among the sea of annual stagings, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has given its version a uniquely Canadian twist. The grandfather clock and cabinets become the Parliament buildings. Kids on horses are dressed like Mounties. There’s a notable appearance by a Hudson’s Bay blanket. And, of course, they’ve managed to work in a hockey scene.
It’s Vetter’s first year with company but his second time dancing the piece. He appeared in last year’s production while he was still a student at the company’s ballet school. The fresh-faced 19-year-old talks ecstatically about landing a spot in the corps.
“I consider myself a really big dreamer, so I have to be careful sometimes, but this is what I wanted when I moved away from home at 13,” he says. “Right now I’m not thinking as much about the future. I’m just focusing on being here right now.”
Hailing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Vetter made the seven-hour move north to Winnipeg to enrol after his dance teachers at the local academy urged him to audition. He’d started with tap dancing at age seven and then gradually slid into ballet when his studio began offering free classes to boys, a step to get more kids to try it out.
Though he doesn’t credit entering the dance world specifically with his self-acceptance, he’s certainly found it a safe environment. Coming out the year after he went away to school meant he had both a supportive space and a little distance from family.
“My parents have been great, and they were fine with it. I guess it could have been different,” he says with a laugh. “But they couldn’t have kicked me out of the house even if they’d wanted to. They’d already done that a year before when I went away to school.”