Review–St. Louis Ballet Nutcracker

I’ve been to about a half-dozen live performances of the Nutcracker in my lifetime, and seen many more on television. Now, I don’t think that makes me a ballet expert or anything, but it does mean I have some pretty strong opinions about the ballet and how it’s performed, and so I was very curious to see how the St. Louis Ballet’s version would measure up. In general, my main comparison is to the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker, which, even though I’ve never seen it performed live, is my favorite.

I will say that of all the live performances I *have* seen, I think the St. Louis Ballet has been my favorite. I will have to admit that the first time I saw the Nutcracker was over 20 years ago in downtown Chicago, so while it was most likely the highest quality production I’ve seen, it is also the fuzziest in my memory. But compared to the more recent performances I’ve seen live, the Saint Louis Ballet definitely gets my vote.

I loved the costuming of the Saint Louis Ballet. I’m guessing their budget isn’t as great as, say, the San Fransisco Ballet, and I think they did an excellent job with what they had. The snowflakes had my favorite costumes, especially the queen, whose white dress was accented with blue gems, and I also liked the purple Sugar Plum Fairy costume. I will say, I was not a fan of the Arabians costumes, particularly the man’s, as he was shirtless, and that seemed really out of place in a family performance.

I did not care for the narration that accompanied the performance. I don’t know if that’s a standard for the St. Louis Ballet, of it was something they added because it was a school performance, but I really don’t think it had any place in the ballet. The dancing should tell the story without using words, and I think even children can figure out what’s happening in the Nutcracker, without someone having to give a play-by-play. I found this especially disappointing because, if this was many of the children’s first introduction to the ballet, as is kind of the point of having the school performance, they totally missed the concept of letting the dancers tell the story through their movements.

My favorite part of this performance was the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” In general, this is always one of my favorite parts of the Nutcracker, and the St. Louis Ballet was no exception. Between the beautiful costumes, and the dancing, I thought this was the highlight of the ballet.

The sets of the St. Louis Ballet were nothing spectacular, and were actually rather bland. Again, I realize the budget is probably pretty small, but they almost felt like something you would expect to see at a high school or college production, not the sets of a professional company. I found them to be pretty uninspiring, and they certainly didn’t add to my enjoyment of the performance.

I had mixed feelings about the Russian dance. They did a hoop dance, which may actually be more traditional to the Nutcracker than the Cossack dance, but I really prefer the Russian Cossack dance. This change of dance styles affected the costuming, which I also had mixed feelings about. The candy cane costumes were kind of charming, but they were covered in bells, which I found kind of fun and distracting at the same time. I never realized how much noise so many small bells could make when they’re all ringing together!

I did prefer the polinchelles in the St. Louis Ballet, even to those in the San Fransisco Ballet. Again, the costumes were charming–very colorful and fun. And the dance was also very playful and entertaining to watch. But, best of all, there was no Mother Ginger in this dance. For some reason, that’s the one, (and only!), thing in the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker that I don’t like. I much prefer the polinchelles on their own than accompanied by the giant circus tent skirted Mother Ginger.

I will say that the overall dancing in the ballet was a bit sloppy. The timing appeared to be off in many instances, and the quality of the dancing was second-rate compared to the San Fransisco Ballet. I guess I’m really comparing apples and oranges, but San Fransisco will always be what I use to measure other ballets, and in the end, as much as I enjoyed the St. Louis Ballet, it will never be as magical as the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker.

Christmas School–Day Thirteen

Today was Nutcracker Day! I have loved the Nutcracker since I was a little girl, so I’m always excited to find a way to work it into school.

We listened to a recording of  The Nutcracker on CD while we were doing our Language Arts, as well as while we were doing all of our Nutcracker activities. This is my favorite recording of the Nutcracker, plus the set also has the bonus Symphony Number 4 on it. All four children have really come to appreciate this score, and I love that they can get so excited about classical music!

I picked up another great Dover coloring book, the Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book. I only got one copy this time, so Turkey and Bunny have to share, but there are so many different pictures, they can both find something they like. They proved how very stereotypical they are today, when I asked each of them what their favorite part of the Nutcracker is, so I could find a good picture for them to color. Turkey said the battle between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker, and Bunny, of course, said anything with the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was exactly what I expected them to say, and yet I was very amused at their responses.

We also read The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet. This isn’t a particularly fantastic version of the book, but it was cheap, and readily available, so it works. It’s also a good introduction to the basic story of the ballet, so it’s acceptable, just not great. I’m still on the lookout for the perfect print edition of the Nutcracker, the only problem is, I don’t know what that is yet. I’ll know it when I see it, though, so I’ll just keep looking.

Because we all love “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” we made some pretty crystal-like snowflake ornaments to go with Nutcracker Day. I picked up this set at Hobby Lobby for 50% off, which is one of the main reasons it’s one of my favorite places to buy craft kits. Parts of this activity were a little difficult for Turkey and Bunny, but with a little help from their teacher, they were able to make several new ornaments for our tree.

We rounded out Nutcracker day by watching the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker. I’ve talked about this before–to put it simply, this is the best version of the Nutcracker I’ve ever seen, live or recorded. I love it, the children love it, it’s just completely awesome. We can’t watch it often enough!

Fine Arts Week

I had originally planned this week to be ballet-themed. I wasn’t going to make Turkey and Bunny dance, but I thought it would be good for them to learn about the history of dance, hear the stories behind some of the most famous ballets, listen to some of the music, etc. I found it to be especially timely approaching Christmas–we could spend at least a full day on just the Nutcracker, maybe even stretch it into a day and a half.

As I was planning, however, it quickly morphed into more of a study of fine arts than just ballet. Yes, that was still the primary focus, but we also be studied art and artists (specifically Degas, who did many paintings of ballerinas), music and composers (especially Tchaikovsy, without whom the modern shape of ballet would be very different!), and even a little cooking (not really a “fine” art I suppose, but how can you learn about ballet without taking the opportunity to make a Pavlova?).

I found lots of great resources, so I thought I’d share, in case you’re looking for some good reading, watching, or listening related to fine arts!

Full of information on the history of ballet, basic steps, stories of the ballet, everything. The accompanying CD has excerpts of some of the more memorable parts of many ballets, along with explanations of the music, and hints for what to listen for (the sound of cats meowing in The Sleeping Beauty, for example).

This book had wonderful summaries of some of the most famous ballet stories–we read both The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and, if we hadn’t already had a storybook of it, would have read the Nutcracker, too. Like A Child’s Introduction to Ballet, it also comes with a CD.

This is part of a great series called “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists.” While these books are very factual, and full of pictures of paintings, they also have humorous illustrations, and are written in a very conversational style. There seems to be a book for every major artist, too!

I found this book, especially the ending, to be quite moving. In fact, the first time I read through it, I teared up a little.

Similar to the above Degas book, this is part of the companion “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers” series. I unintentionally chose only ballets by Tchaikovsky to read and listen to, so I thought we should learn about the composer himself. Turkey and Bunny especially liked learning about Tchaikovsky’s fear that his head would fall off while conducting in front of an audience, thereby forcing him to hold onto his beard the entire time. We’re looking forward to reading the Bach installment next year!

My favorite version of the Nutcracker ballet, ever. Helgi Tomasson did an awesome job of choreographing the ballet in a fresh new way, while holding true to the original story. There are also educator materials available on the San Francisco Ballet Company’s website, which are great resources for teaching about this ballet.

School: First Day of Winter

Even though the first day of winter was on a Sunday, and technically, we had suspended school for the Christmas holiday the previous Friday, we had a special school day on December 21.  Turkey and Bunny loved this, because Daddy got to come to school, which is something they are always asking for.  We had a special craft activity, a special story, and a movie to watch.

Our craft project for the day was Q-tip snowflakes.  They’re really beautiful, and easy for children to do on their own, because the snowflakes can be as simple or as complex as you want.  There’s a really cool gallery with pictures of actual snowflakes taken with a photo-microscope.  It’s totally worth checking out, and a great reminder of God’s attention to detail.


This craft was really fun, although I’m really glad I made a sample beforehand, to work out most of the kinks (who knew there was a correct side of the wax paper to use?).  There were still a few minor issues with the snowflakes coming apart when peeling them off the wax paper the second time around, but not as bad as my first two, and a little hot glue fixed them up just fine.

Daddy got to be the narrator for our winter story–Snow, by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman.  The timing was perfect on this one, because Bunny had received this book as a Christmas present the Friday before (thanks, Uncle Ken!), so we got to read her copy, instead of looking for one at the library.  Turkey and Bunny loved it, and have been asking to read it constantly, as well as planning all the things they would like to do in the snow that they learned about in the book–it would have to snow here first, but that’s besides the point.  They can dream, right?

Finally, we watched our second viewing of the Nutcracker–the San Francisco Ballet production.  I had previewed the second half of this version of the classic ballet a few days prior, and because I was so impressed with it, decided it would make a nice addition to our winter lessons, especially with how beautiful the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” was.  Turkey and Bunny had already seen the Mikhail Baryshnikov production the previous week, in addition to reading the storybook, so they were familiar with the story. They both seemed to prefer the San Francisco Ballet production, in part due to the fact that Baryshnikov leaves out the Sugar Plum Fairy, while the San Francisco Ballet gives her her due.  Regardless, they both sat transfixed through the entire performance a second time, which I find impressive given their ages, and the fact that, as much as even I love the Nutcracker, the music is so soothing, it makes even me want to drift off to sleep!

We have really enjoyed our special change of the season activities for both Fall and Winter–now I just have to come up with something spectacular for spring!  I’m thinking something involving coffee filters, food coloring and pipe cleaners, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Stay tuned!

Christmas School: Nutcracker Resources

We took two days of our Christmas unit to read, watch and listen to various Nutcracker stories.  We read the classic:  The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet.  Turkey and Bunny were really amused by this story, and I like it because it’s one of the few secular Christmas stories that has nothing to do with Santa.  We also watched the Nutcracker ballet–two different versions.  First we watched the classic Baryshnikov, which my father actually bought for me when I was a little girl, after we had seen a performance of the ballet in downtown Chicago.  Turkey and Bunny loved that, and it would have been enough, except that I stumbled across the San Francisco Ballet performance of the Nutcracker on PBS, and I was so impressed by the costumes, sets, and general interpretation that we watched that one, too, and the children liked it just as much, if not more.  We, of course, had to watch the Nutcracker segment on Walt Disney’s Fantasia after learning about the ballet, and they thought that was equally entertaining.  I also have a beautiful recording of the Nutcracker that Ryan bought me one Christmas, so we listened to that music while doing our school activities one day.  I think Turkey and Bunny have successfully ingrained the sounds in their brains–they won’t be forgetting that score any time soon!