Although Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s inaugural performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet on Dec. 18, 1892, was not hailed as a success, it has since become the most widely performed dance production of all time. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge alone, in 2014, at least 10 productions of this holiday classic are being presented this year.
This weekend, the two local ballet companies that have been staging “The Nutcracker” the longest are both making their annual presentations. They are Ballet Hysell (under the auspices of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society) and Delta Festival Ballet.
Founded in 1969 by the late Harvey Hysell, Ballet Hysell began staging “The Nutcracker” two years later with the former New Orleans Symphony. Of the many local dance companies now performing “The Nutcracker,” Ballet Hysell has the longest continuous tradition of presenting it.
Now staged under the auspices of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, Ballet Hysell’s “Nutcracker” productions will be on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center in Metairie.
For the musical accompaniment, Dennis G. Assaf, JPAS’s artistic director, will conduct the JPAS Symphony Orchestra.
Ballet Hysell’s artistic director, Diane Carney, began working with Harvey Hysell in the early 1970s and assumed full leadership of the company following his death in 2008. She spoke with pride about her mentor who, she said, can be credited for directing 107 ballets, including “The Nutcracker,” to which he added some of his own embellishments.
Among those embellishments were what Carney termed “the most gorgeous snow scene that I’ve ever seen” (in Act I, Scene II).
He also made some notable adjustments to several of the pas de deux that, Carney said, “stabilized the production and gave it more balance.”
Performing in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is Toni Ann Chetta and opposite her as her Cavalier is Willie Moore Jr.
Both of the leads are 26 years old, and Chetta, Carney noted, performed the same role in a JPAS production 10 years earlier. She had been a Hysell student since the age of 9.
Carney, 77, who will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Big Easy Classical Arts Awards in 2015, also had words of praise for maestro Dennis Assaf. “I can always relax when he conducts,” Carney said. “He knows how to conduct for dance, and he is the best dance conductor we’ve ever worked with.”
Delta Festival Ballet
Evolving as an outgrowth of the Giacobbe Academy of Dance, which was founded by the Giacobbe family in 1943, Delta Festival Ballet has been performing “The Nutcracker” for all but one year since 1981.
Joseph Giacobbe, who founded DFB in 1969 with his sister Maria Giacobbe and with whom he shares artistic director duties, explained that the only year they missed doing “The Nutcracker” was in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when all of the local performance spaces either were damaged or being used for other purposes.
For this year’s performances, starting Friday night and ending Sunday afternoon at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall, Giacobbe said he is looking forward to the appearance of Laura Gilbreath Tisserand in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
A native of Hammond, she was one of his prize students prior to her 2003 move to Pacific Northwest Ballet, widely considered to be among the nation’s “elite” ballet companies.
Working her way up from an apprentice to a soloist, she was promoted to a principal with the company earlier this year.
“It’s taken me a few years to finally get her free,” Giacobbe explained. “So many other companies are doing ‘The Nutcracker’ around this time of the year, and many of the dancers can’t get out of their companies’ commitments.
“As a principal, Laura now has that freedom, and we’re glad to have her come back here and perform for us,” Giacobbe said. “She loves ballet and, from a young child, you just knew that’s what she wanted to do and she had all of the ability to make it happen.”
Performing opposite Tisserand as her Cavalier is her French-born husband, Jerome Tisserand.
Most of the 130-member cast consists of children who are students at DFB. Joseph and Maria Giacobbe choreograph and direct the production. The dancers will be accompanied by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with Glenn Langdon conducting.