Performing ‘The Nutcracker’ at Christmas time is a tradition shared among nearly all the ballet dance companies around the world.
It’s certainly what Cooper Rust, the artistic director and founder-mother of Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) did in South Carolina, USA, from the time she was age three.
That is why DCK is continuing the tradition over the next two weekends at Kenya National Theatre.
There will be a number of significant differences in this year’s Ballet. The first one is musical.
It is the fact that DCK now has its own orchestra, including some of Kenya’s finest young musicians who have been drawn mainly from other leading orchestras, such as the Nairobi Philharmonic, Nairobi Orchestra, Safaricom Youth Orchestra, and Kenya Conservatoire of Music.
There will also be two guest musicians, one a bassoonist from the US, the other from the Netherlands who plays the clarinet.
And their conductor will be Levi Wataka, Kenya’s most acclaimed conductor who is currently the principal conductor of the Nairobi Orchestra, as well as Music Director with the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya and Nairobi Youth Orchestra among others.
“We are excited that Levi, who’s a Kenyan orchestral superstar, will be conducting the ballet for the first time,” Cooper told BDLife during a dress rehearsal of the ballet that Russian composer IlyichTchaikovsky wrote the dazzling musical score for.
Also included among the guest artists performing this year is the Ghetto Classics Children’s Choir.
This is a group of youth from Korogocho who study music with the Art of Music Foundation.
The choir will be singing the chorus in the Waltz of the Snowflakes which takes place towards the end of Act One.
The actual story of the Nutcracker was written by E.T.A. Hoffman and first performed in 1882 in St. Petersburg’s Imperial Marinsky Theatre.
The original choreography was by Maruis Petipa; it has been adapted and revised in recent times by Cooper Rust who previously has put in ‘guest appearances’ either as ‘Arabian Coffee’ (which is being danced by Rani Shah this year) or as Frau Stahlbaum whose home is where the Christmas party takes place.
It is her daughter Clara (Keri Yamane) who receives a Christmas gift, a toy Nutcracker shaped as a uniformed soldier, from her Godfather Herr Drosselmeyer.
Once the party ends and Clara falls asleep, she is awakened (while still dreaming) to find her Nutcracker (Eugene Ochieng) is alive and looking more like Prince Charming than a toy.
He and his troops fight with Rat King and his rat pack. Fortunately, he triumphs over the rats. Then to the intermission.
The whole Nutcracker is a joyful collection of eclectic dances, rich with colorful costuming, designed and produced by the Centre’s costume mistress, Antonia Mukandie who has been assisted by volunteers, parents, and her team of tailors who dressed up more than 120 dancers.
Most of them I watched last Sunday as they rehearsed a whole series of exotic dances shared with Clara as gratitude for ‘saving’ the Nutcracker prince from being defeated by the Rat King.
If The Nutcracker sounds surreal, it is. But it is also a fantasy meant to charm and enchant children.
That is why the little girl Clara travels to faraway lands in her dreams. Accompanied by her Nutcracker, she meets everyone from the Snow Queen (Joy Gitonga) and Snow Cavalier (Alex Stow) together with their snowflakes to assorted Angels (from Arch angels and cherubs to Guardian angels and Seraphim).
She meets a Chef who introduces her to Spanish Chocolate (Watiri), Arabian Coffee (Rani Shah) and Chinese tea (Charles Irungu, juhi Nanji).
She meets a Dragon (Francis Kibe) with long legs, a group of Russians headed by Aske Ballan and a shepherdess (Pauline Okumu) with baby lambs, a big bundle of beautiful flowers and the graceful Sugar Plum Fairy (Pamela Atieno) and Cavalier (Shamick Otieno), both of whom have been with DCK since it initially opened in 2015. Both came from her first-time teaching ballet to children in Kibera.
There are other dancers in the ballet who came from either Kibera or Kuwinda. They came on scholarships the Centre was able to provide thanks to local supporters of DCK as well as those from overseas who hear about the Centre through the efforts of the NGO, Artists for Africa which has enabled many young Kenyan from ‘under-served’ communities to attend workshops, advanced studies and dance programs abroad.
Some are professional dancers, like Joel Kioko who joined the Joffrey Ballet and now is with the Nevada Ballet Theatre.