When it first premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, over 100 years ago, the two-act Nutcracker ballet fell flat for Russian attendees.
Famously scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The whimsical story has been interpreted and performed countless times since its initial lukewarm reception. Locally, it’s been performed by a cohort of dancers, athletes, students and artists for more than half a century in San Jose by one organization in particular.
As of this year, San Jose Dance Theatre and their rotating troupe of dancers and students have performed a traditional iteration of the original Russian Nutcracker for 58 years, calling their production “the San Jose Nutcracker.”
Michael Howerton, president of the board of directors for San Jose Dance Theater, says SJDT’s interpretation of the ballet has become something of a traditional mainstay for local families. They take pleasure in staying consistent with the same spirited score created by Tchaikovsky, down to the same original choreography that the Nutcracker debuted with in Russia in the 1800s.
“This year we are taking an even more traditional approach…we’re taking it back to the original [SJDT] founder’s choreography,” Howerton says.
Tradition is at the heart of San Jose Dance Theatre’s Nutcracker presentation—now retitled The Original San Jose Nutcracker.
SJDT’s efforts to incorporate San Jose into its Nutcracker tagline follow New Ballet’s The San Jose Nutcracker, a themed production set in turn-of-the-century San Jose. This weekend, both Nutcrackers take the stage, New Ballet’s The San Jose Nutcracker at the California Theatre and SJDT’s The Original San Jose Nutcracker at the Center for the Performing Arts.
Tradition is at the heart of San Jose Dance Theatre’s presentation of the Nutcracker (now retitled the Original San Jose Nutcracker).
“For almost 30 years, we were the only Nutcracker in San Jose,” Howerton shares. “The fact that we were the resident Nutcracker of the Center for Performing Arts, I believe, really solidified our place in downtown San Jose. We’re super proud of that.”
Long before Howerton was president at SJDT he was a student of the school. Howerton first began dancing with the company in 1970. He was nine years old at the time. He stayed with the company all through his early 20s.
“I performed my first Nutcracker with Paul and Shawn when we were still at the Civic Auditorium,” he says.
Paul Curtis and Shawn Stuart were the original founders of the West Valley Ballet Company, who in 1973 incorporated and changed the name to San Jose Dance Theater Company.
“They were instrumental, for many many reasons, but especially, for being wonderful mentors and teachers to me,” Howerton says. “They started doing the Nutcracker back in 1960, back at the Los Gatos High School. Then, we moved to the Civic Auditorium in 1965. That’s why we take that 1965 marker and go from that many years forward. We’re now at year 57—we’ve been performing since 1965.”
To date, Howerton has performed the role of Drosselmeyer for over two decades, which he says is still his favorite character in the ballet.
“I’ve danced just about every role in the Nutcracker over the years. In 1992, I was fortunate enough to have one of the founders, Shawn Stuart, hand over the role of Drosselmeyer over to me. … Off and on, of course, because we’ve had some iterations within the company.”
But back when the former dancer was just 21, he left the company to perform with a contemporary San Jose-based ballet organization, the Margaret Wingrove Dance Company. Artistic director and dancer Margaret Wingrove founded the company in 1981 and continues to be sought after for choreography by many dance companies in the Bay Area. Under Wingrove’s guidance and with the company’s support, Howerton made a name for himself.
“I started dancing for Margaret’s company in 1983. I started as a dancer, then later choreographer, co-director and eventually artistic director of the company.”
In the late ’90s, Howerton met Mark Foehringer, San Jose Dance Theatre’s current artistic director.
“Mark and I go all the way back to 1995,” he says. “I was one of the first company members when he was beginning the Mark Foehringer Dance Project in San Francisco.”
Howerton danced with both Wingrove and Foehringer’s companies for many years, with performances spanning across the Bay Area.
“I danced with Mark and Margaret until I was simply too old to be dancing at that capacity anymore…my body was broken at that point. It was too physically demanding,” he recalls.
After years of performing, Howerton went into the tech sector, only recently retiring. A year and a half ago, San Jose Dance Theatre’s outgoing president approached him about taking the helm of the beloved company where he had grown up dancing.
“We had some conversations about it and at one point I said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be fun if I came in and headed the organization?’”
Given all of the history the Cupertino-raised dancer had with the company, the role was deemed a perfect fit.
“It felt like a full-circle moment for me,” he shares. “And it’s been very cool, for Mark and I, to actually be doing this together. It all fell together very organically and it’s been a rewarding experience so far.”
Founded in 2016 by local dancer, choreographer and ballet teacher Dalia Rawson, the San Jose-based nonprofit dance company New Ballet is giving many Bay Area dance companies a run for their money. In their creative iteration of the two-act Nutcracker, they champion what the art of ballet means in this day and age and how vital it is.
The production is collaborative, from the scenic elements and backdrops created with insight from History San Jose and major contributions from downtown muralist Lacey Bryant, to the exclusive access of one functioning Tesla Coil that makes a special appearance during the ballet. Rawson’s iteration of the Nutcracker is all about combining the words “San Jose” and “Nutcracker.”
“There’s no way you can miss that we’re in San Jose in any of the scenes of the show,” she says.
At its core, Rawson’s production is a local story for a local audience, with plenty of local elements integrated into the familiar story. The waltz of the flowers is now the waltz of tangerine-clad ballerinas dancing as California poppies; mercury becomes quicksilver mines; and the Land of Sweets is replaced by a remarkably scenic Valley of the Heart’s Delight, with apricot blossoms at center stage.
“Our ballet company works with us all year round, we have a full-year contract of local dancers who dance with us from September through the end of May, so they’re really based and rooted here in San Jose,” Rawson adds.
There are plenty of moving parts to New Ballet’s iteration of the Nutcracker, including many outside organizations helping in the endeavor.
“Los Lupeños Juvenile, which is the youth arm of the local folklorico company, choreographed a section of our ballet featured in the second act. And the Ragazzi Boys Choir also performs live with us,” Rawson says, mentioning the acclaimed Peninsula choir. “From the moment I came up with this idea of making a Nutcracker for the city of San Jose, based in the city of San Jose—it’s really been a dream come true. It’s been my obsession for a long time, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished this season.”
The reimagined Nutcracker shows the kind of dedication and uniquely collaborative approach taken by a company that’s as inclusive as it is creative.
“To modern audiences, much of the traditional story is cultural appropriation. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to reimagine Clara’s story completely,” Rawson says.
And that she has.
Clara’s story—as reworked by Rawson, the ballet company and augmented by dancers from the school—changes the traditional narrative and tailors it around a new, contemporary tale, one that still focuses on Clara but centers around themes of bravery and finding one’s own identity.
“My goal in reimagining these big classical ballets is to update them for modern audiences. Our region is remarkable, known for the great ideas created in this Valley. We wanted this to be a production for our city of San Jose, inspired by our city, and involving our entire community.”
Rawson is passionate about reinventing popular ballet stories for contemporary audiences, but also committed to gathering from the entire community for her productions.
“We really believe in inclusivity in our storytelling and across all aspects of dance. We want ballet to resonate with, and share with, our entire community, which is why we keep our ticket prices low,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been asked multiple, multiple times, ‘Why aren’t you bumping up those 25 dollar tickets?’ And I say no. And it’s because I really believe that everyone in San Jose, as many people as we can, should be able to experience this ballet because it’s for our whole community.”
After an unprecedented pandemic forced the company to perform their unique San Jose-centric ballet online, she is understandably excited for the dance company to be headlining the California Theater this winter.
“Last year, coming out of the pandemic and seeing audiences in that lobby, there to enjoy the ballet, just felt like a miracle. We’re so excited to get back into a theater and see our beautiful dancers on stage,” she says. “And the California is the perfect home for our production. There’s no theater like the California in the Bay Area. It’s such a jeweled, art-deco splendor—you walk in through the door and you feel transported immediately.
In addition to its dazzling venue and cast of local contributors, the production is also lucky to include Los Angeles-born organist and NASA Computer Systems Engineer Jerry Nagano’s award-winning keyboard skills. Nagano is one of two specially trained artists licensed to play the historic organ in the California Theater.
“It’s a special moment the second you walk into the theater and hear [Jerry] playing. The Packard Foundation rebuilt the California and now the pipe organ comes out of the walls, and the music just fills the entire lobby. It is a beautiful experience.”
When it originally debuted, Nutcracker was far from a success, bogged down in audiences’ minds by its slow first act. However, it’s now become part of the cultural climate of the holidays. It’s also a financial lifeline for dancing companies, whose annual budget is directly derived from grants from government agencies, private donors and fundraising events.
Historically, the production has consistently been a high-cost event. According to a 2017 Dance/USA survey, budgets for a new production spanning small to mid-sized dance companies can reach up to $2 million. That number grows dramatically when items like shoes, costumes, props and scenic elements are added to a program during a season. On average, the San Francisco Ballet will typically go through over 1,200 pairs of pointe shoes during a single Nutcracker season.
However, the survey found that The Nutcracker represents nearly 50 percent of a company’s overall revenues per season—sometimes it pays to play. Ultimately, the ballet continues to be a vital financial boon to dance companies nationally and locally.
Whether observed traditionally or interpreted through a modern lens, Nutcracker is here to stay in San Jose. For Dahlia Rawson at New Ballet, that means more opportunity to engage with the community.
“I really believe that it’s important that ballet is seen as a form of entertainment, and that performances are fast-paced, energetic and fun for families to come and attend,” she says.
With four programs scheduled for this year, San Jose Dance Theatre remains as busy as ever. Having recently received support from SVCreates and the county of Santa Clara, the company was able to survive through the pandemic and continue to bring this holiday tradition to San Jose. Then, it’s on to the next.
“It seems like as soon as we get through one program, we’re immediately getting ready to start the next one, and we’re so grateful for that,” Howerton says. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have help from the community and our grantors.”
Correction: this version of the story has been corrected to reflect that San Jose Dance Theatre named their production The Original San Jose Nutcracker in 2022.