When “The Nutcracker” opened in 1892 in Russia, ballets were like travelogues, snapshots of exotic lands seen through their national dances.
“Most regular people didn’t travel then,” says Peter Anastos, Ballet Idaho artistic director. “Ballets were like postcards from each culture.”
Nothing brings that idea to the fore as well as the second-act dances in “The Nutcracker.” The actual story of “The Nutcracker” happens in the first act. The second act is just for fun, filled with divertissements — dances performed simply to entertain and amuse.
Each variation (dance) correlates to a sweet treat that was popular at the time, from countries far from Russia — hence the national-flavored dances representing each treat’s country of origin.
“In our time, it gets a little dicey with ethnic stereotypes,” Anastos says. “But ‘The Nutcracker’ is an antique, so you have to roll with it.”
‘Spanish’ for hot chocolate
Spain conquered Mexico in the 16th century and brought chocolate to Europe. Then it was mostly known as a hot beverage. In Tchaikovsky’s day, Spanish hot chocolate was known far and wide.
Don’t think flamenco. This dance is pure classical ballet with spicy attitude. The costumes are often chocolate colored. “I think it’s the only ballet costume that is brown,” Anastos says.
‘Chinese’ for tea
Tea from China was highly coveted in the 19th century. Expensive, it was a drink for the wealthy. People stored tea in boxes that locked, called tea caddies.
In some productions, “Chinese” is represented by a man in traditional garb popping out of a tea caddy. In others, it’s a duet. Some choreographers use a Chinese lion dance, which is more culturally accurate. For Anastos, his “Chinese” features a male leaping like a daredevil over a growing number of dancers.
‘Arabian’ for coffee
Arabian coffee hailed from Istanbul. Turkish coffee is thick and rich, and often brewed with sugar.
“Arabian” is the ballet’s sexiest moment, Anastos says. The music is slow and hypnotic. Anastos’ pas de deux uses long lines, slow extensions and dancers in flowing, silk harem pants to create a mood.
Sometimes called “Reeds and Flutes” or “Mirlitons,” for the instrument that plays the music, marzipan is a candy made from honey, almonds and sugar that became popular in France. It’s often shaped into whimsical forms and is colored.
Anastos populated this bit of froth with three French shepherdesses. “They’re in confectionery tutus and tricorne hats, like Marie Antoinette and her friends dressing up like shepherdess,” Anastos says.
The “Russian” variation is one of the most popular and exciting, a version of a Ukrainian dance called a tropak. Traditionally, the dance is associated with Russian tea cakes, a ball-shaped cookie coated with confectioner’s sugar. Anastos created his with Russian nougat in mind, a candy similar to caramel, filled with nuts.
Often “Russian” is done with three male dancers. Anastos’ is a solo.
“It’s very powerful with great music that gets people jazzed up,” he says “I did it as a tour de force for our male dancers. It’s a tightrope. You have to kill it on stage.”
‘Salt Water Taffy’ sailors
The traditional role for this music is “Candy Cane,” a dance performed with red- and white-striped hoops. For Ballet Idaho, Anastos created “Salt Water Taffy” sailors.
“In my mind, the music is nautical, so I saw these little sailors,” he says. “Everyone in Russia dressed their child in little sailor suits at that time, so it made sense, and it’s a challenging dance for eight young dancers.”
‘Waltz of the Flowers’
The biggest of the variations section is the “Waltz of the Flowers,” one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest waltzes, “and he was like the Russian Waltz King,” Anastos says.
“That melody is just fabulous. It’s lush and orchestral, and I just love the way the 10 dancers in those big pink romantic tutus just fill the stage,” he says.
Ballet Idaho’s ‘The Nutcracker’
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19; and noon and 4 p.m. Sunday Dec. 20, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. Tickets are $38-$58. 343-0556, ext. 220; balletidaho.org.