The Nutcracker, Walter Byj and the Burlington Performing Arts Centre

About two years ago Brenda Heatherington was hired to run the Performing Arts Centre which was under construction when she had her first business cards printed up.

One of her objectives was to introduce Burlington to performances it had not seen in the past.  Quality programs were available in Hamilton and Toronto, which is where parents would go year after year with their children to see the Nutcracker.  

Heatherington wanted to introduce Burlington to the classics and to bring in popular groups she would use to develop an audience in Burlington.  How is she doing so far?  Too early to tell – creating an audience is a slow process that requires an ability to read the interests of the community and at the same time know when you can push them a little and offer something they’ve not been exposed to before.  That takes time, it means taking some risks and hoping you get it right more often than you get it wrong.  The public tends to remember just the clunkers – not the productions that do close to sold out business.

Heatherington is going to need three full years before the city is convinced she got it right. During that time funding requests will be higher than city council is prepared to swallow and that’s when the tension between city hall and the Performing Arts Centre becomes measurable.

Heatherington relies on box office sales and feedback from the public.  She never has any difficulty with the naysayers, who describe the building as a “nice to have”.  She doesn’t get too many occasions to hear from the people who try something for the first time and leave the building pleasantly pleased.

A few weeks ago Walter Byj wrote us and asked if he could review the Nutcrakcer that was coming to the city.  BAJ had absolutely no experience reviewing and knew nothing about ballet – all that became evident when he submitted his review which appears below with very little editing.

Byj’s efforts reflects the growth of different audiences in Burlington for artistic productions that have not been available until the Centre opened October 1, 2011 when Royal Wood took to the stage for the first “tickets for sale event.  Prior to the first performance, Denise Walker, the first person to appear on the stage thanked the public during two “Thank you Very Much events when the public got a chance to tour the building, have a drink and chat with friends at tables set out in the Family Room.  It was the first part of the soft launch the theatre board decided to use to introduce the public to the place. 

By Walter Byj

BURLINGTON, ON  December 19, 2012   How does a sports fan prepare when planning to attend his first ballet?  Being open minded would be the first step followed by some preparation.  The initial step would be to know exactly what a ballet is.  You would not ask a novice to watch a sporting event without first describing a brief overview of the sporting event. The same can be said when attending an artistic event.  So, it is time to learn something about ballet.

A classic Christmas performance that has introduced millions of children to the world of ballet.

The word ballet originated with the Greek word ballizo which means to dance, to jump about.  Ballet originated in the 15thcentury in Italy during the renaissance.  The style then spread to France and Russia and evolved into a performance or concert dance which is intended for an audience.  There is much more background, but this is a good start.  Next, you would need to pick a ballet.  Well, being the Christmas season, there is a ballet that is synonymous with the Christmas season, The Nutcracker. The name is familiar as it is advertised annually in the entertainment pages and some of the music has become a Christmas standard.  Also, the music was written by a musician that we have all heard about, P. Tchaikovsky. Now that I have determined the title of my first ballet, I then need to pick a location.  Although it is playing in Toronto during the Christmas holidays, I opted to attend the performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre which featured the State Ballet of Russia performance of the Nutcracker. It was close to home, 15 minutes away, and the parking was free.

The soldiers were smartly dressed in the uniforms strutting about the stage.

I am now sitting in the theatre which by the way is quite pleasant. An intimate theatre with 718 comfortable seats, it offers everyone good sightlines.  The curtain is now rising and the first act is to begin.

Having read the program prior to the beginning of the show, I am aware of the story that envelopes the ballet. That is a good thing as there is no speaking during the performance and you need interpret what is happening via the dance moves.  This is like watching a live silent movie in colour.  And speaking of colour, there is plenty of that both in the sets and the costumes.  I could go into great detail as to the story in the first act, but I prefer a quick overview.  It takes place in a rich man’s house with a bunch of kids being entertained by a magician. He brings to life a number of mechanical dolls who dance for a bit until their mechanism is exhausted.  He then presents another toy, an ugly nutcracker that only the resident girl (Masha) seems to enjoy.  After the frivolity has ended and everyone goes home, the little girl of the house, Masha falls asleep and has a very strange dream.  Her mansion is attacked by a horde of mice that are lead by the Mouse King.

The drama, the melancholy – somehow we never tire of the performances – and when we see enough of them we get to the point where we can be critical and compare.  The Performing Arts Centre is growing just that kind of audiences.

But do not fear, the mice are eventually driven away by the Nutcracker and his army of tin soldiers although it was a great thrown shoe by Masha at the Mouse King that helped the Nutcracker claim victory. In fact, he was so happy and grateful that he turned into a handsome prince and Masha changed from a young girl into a beautiful lady. Shortly thereafter, the first act ended.

The second act is comprised of celebratory dancing which encompasses Spanish, Chinese and Russian dancers.  It is here where the Sugar Plum Fairy appears.

However, as daylight approaches, Masha awakens and is now a little girl again and her prince has vanished.  The ballet is over.

A tug of war over someone’s affections?

Did I enjoy The Nutcracker?   I did.  Was it worth attending?  It was.  The music was entertaining in a peaceful sort of way.  There is no doubt why the music of Tchaikovsky has lasted for over 100 years and will continue so for the next 100 years.  It is easier to comment on the quality of the music as I hear various types of music on a constant basis and am able to discern what I believe to be good music.  As to the actual performance of the dancers, it is much more difficult to comment as this is the only ballet that I have seen.  Is this troupe as good as the Bolshoi Ballet?  I don’t know.  I am not sophisticated enough at this moment to observe intelligently.  Did they put on a show that I enjoyed?  Yes they did.  Did the rest of the audience enjoy the performance? It appears that they did although one member of the audience was spending a certain amount of time on her smart phone.  Was she bored or was she texting everyone as to how great the show is?

Millions of little girls around the world dreamed of being a Sugar Plum Fairy – and then there they were on the stage of the Performing Arts Centre.

Would I go to another ballet?  It is hard to say, maybe Swan Lake, another Tchaikovsky ballet.

This production was slightly less than two hours including intermission although I have read that some performances can be up to two and half hours.  This performance timeline is appropriate for a novice as any much longer might start to be monotonous.  If the Nutcracker comes around again next year, by all means do attend. It is a unique event and any new experience is an experience worth having.

Brenda Heatherington has a new customer.  How many more Walter’s does she have?  She knows and in time the rest of us will know if Heatherington and her staff have managed to develop the several audiences that exist in the city but may not know what it means to have a professional, high quality performing arts centre in their city.  Walter Byj knows.

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1 comment to The Nutcracker, Walter Byj and the Burlington Performing Arts Centre

  • Cathy Previdsa

    I loved Walter Byj’s comments. I too have never been to a ballet but based on his review would love to go. Is there any way you could add me to an email distribution list? Thanks and Merry Christmas!