Ballet Hawaii celebrates 40 years with a Nutcracker rendition like no other.
for 40 years, Ballet Hawaii has dazzled island audiences with world-class performances featuring internationally recognized dancers, choreographers, and artists. It has also served as an educational pillar of the community, teaching ballet techniques and principles to tomorrow’s ballerinas and danseurs. All this, from a simple idea to increase arts and culture in Honolulu.
In 1976, then-Mayor Frank Fasi announced his decision to form a professional ballet company for the city, inspired by his daughter Gioia, a dancer, as well as his own passion for the arts. “No city can be great without culture and the arts,” Mayor Fasi said. “And to make a city loved by its people, it must be loveable since no city can be complete without dance.”
Using federal monies granted from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a 1973 law that trained workers on how to accomplish public service jobs, Fasi’s administration established the Honolulu City Ballet in 1976, under the purview of the Department of Parks and Recreation. However, funding was a struggle for this new company, which found itself competing for budget within the department. A ‘Friends of the Ballet’ support group was created to find financial solutions for the company, but when the federal government discontinued CETA in the early 1980s, the Honolulu City Ballet went with it.
However, the Friends of the Ballet remained, and in time, adopted a new name and mission: Ballet Hawaii, dedicated to teaching, presenting, promoting, and producing dance in Hawai’i. Artistic Director Pamela Taylor-Tongg has been with the organization for more than 30 years. “I previously danced with the Atlanta Ballet for 10 years, and one of the dancers there was involved in the original Honolulu City Ballet. They said I should contact Friends of the Ballet, which I did, and they were doing Cinderella the first year I was [in Hawai’i],” recalls Taylor-Tongg. “It was with a choreographer I had worked with in Atlanta, so I decided to help them out. And in the process, there were 12 girls who needed a warm-up class, so I started teaching that.”
The rest was history. Today, Taylor-Tongg and a small team of just five oversee Ballet Hawaii’s 400-plus students, ages 3 and up. Adult classes run throughout the year, with 12-week classes in the spring, summer, and winter, covering everything from body conditioning to ballet technique, pointe work, and more. 2016 marks the company’s 40th anniversary and to commemorate the event, Ballet Hawaii will be hosting their annual performance of The Nutcracker, with a local twist.
“We wanted this show to be the culmination of our 40 years. It would be The Nutcracker, but we also wanted this show to be representative of Hawai’i and the city,” says Taylor-Tongg. But how to reimage the classic Nutcracker tale-of toy soldiers and sugar plum fairies and grand waltzes – in a Hawai’i context? The Ballet Hawaii team would find their answer on a tour of Washington Place in January.
Built in 1847, Washington Place was intended to be the residence of sea captain John Dominis and his wife, Mary. When John’s ship was lost at sea, Mary converted the home to a boarding house offering rooms to let as a means to support herself and their young son, John Owen Dominis. On Christmas Eve 1858, she hosted a party for a hundred of Honolulu’s children, which helped to establish the holiday in the Hawaiian Kingdom. “When we found this out, the party, everything began to take place. That’s also how we came up with the ability to have [Nutcracker characters] Clara and Fritz, because they could be placed in Washington Place as boarders,” Taylor-Tongg says.
From this launching point, everything in the ballet could be adopted to include elements of Hawai’i. Godfather Drosselmeyer’s dolls become a palace guard and hibiscus flower and a pueo. A moonlit pine forest where the snowflakes fall in the story becomes the snow-covered peaks of Mauna Kea. The characters retreat to a beautiful lush garden (Mary Dominis planted the first garden in Honolulu) for the second act, in the Land of Sweets. Tchaikovsky’s original music is unchanged, but the scenes take on new dimension. The Arabian Dance, for example, becomes the legend of Hi’iaka and Lohiau. ~ e Russian Dance now depicts the Hawaiian warrior; the Chinese Dance, of fishermen. Mother Ginger becomes Mother Moana. The Sugar Plum Fairy becomes the Sugar Plumeria-and so on.
Just as some creative liberties have been taken with the original Nutcracker ballet for this production, the incorporation of island legends, flora and fauna is not an exact retelling of literal Hawaiian history. But that’s not the point, says Dr. M. Puakea Nogelmeier, UH Professor of Hawaiian Language, Hawaiian scholar, and respected kumu hula, who assisted as a creative consultant on the Nutcracker adaptation.
“While the ballet will not be presenting a ‘history,’ the setting, images, and adaptations that [Ballet Hawaii is] creating are articulated into the actual history and culture of the islands. It’s reward ing to see Hawaiian language and history handled with such regard,” says Nogelmeier. “Those who know Hawai’i’s history will get glimpses they’ll recognize and savor, but the larger enjoyment for all will be the inspiring way that Hawai’i gets woven into great ballet and magical presentation.”
Ballet Hawaii has pulled out all the stops for this year’s performance, with choreography by Septime Webre, former artistic director of the Washington Ballet, and first act costumes designed by Project Runway designer Kini Zamora. Dozens of dancers, designers, and directors have worked tirelessly for months in preparation of December’s performance – and it promises to be no less than spectacular.
“It’s a magnificent collaboration of dance and theater, fashion and orchestra,” says Taylor-Tongg. “You have six-year-old dancers performing for the first time ever, all the way up to accomplished professional dancers. In rehearsals sometimes, you see [the professionals] watching from the wings, and they say they like seeing the younger students performing and out there, going for it.”
Taylor-Tongg says that connection is key: from older generations to the next, the past 40 years to the future. “That’s what Ballet Hawaii is about, that coming together. It’s a huge undertaking, but we’ll get it done. And it will be glorious.”
PHOTOS BY JOE MARQUEZ