JANUARY 06, 2010
SUGAR PLUM FAIRIES, MOUSE kings, dancing snowflakes and candy canes—it can only be The Nutcracker. The Dumas stage adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, set to Tchaikovsky’s famous suite, is a staple Christmas performance.
Words and photography by John Lillywhite.
SUGAR PLUM FAIRIES, MOUSE kings, dancing snowflakes and candy canes—it can only be The Nutcracker. The Dumas stage adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, set to Tchaikovsky’s famous suite, is a staple Christmas performance. But was an undertaking of this scale really feasible for the Amman School of Ballet, a company that’s only been around since May?
Ballet schools typically do a year-end revue to show off their students’ progress, but this one certainly went a bit beyond.
On December 10 and 11, just under 3,000 people attended the school’s production of The Nutcracker, which involved around 110 dancers, a children’s choir of 50 and, of course, the Amman Symphony Orchestra.
The duo behind performance are Melissa Sweiss, the founder and director of the Amman School of Ballet, and Rachel LaBonte, a former student of the Kirov Academy of Dance in Washington, DC who, after a 10-year hiatus, had decided to return to training, and perhaps one day to the stage. The two met for the first time in July, at Cups & Kilos, when Sweiss was still “putting feelers out” in regard to a major Christmas performance.
“At first, when Melissa suggested a performance of The Nutcracker, I was like: Are you mad?” LaBonte recalls.
“We agreed to do little vignettes instead,” chuckles Sweiss. “That’s how I sucked her in.”
The ballet quickly took on a life of its own. “Rachel’s favorite part was the land of sweets, but I really enjoyed the Christmas party,” explains Sweiss. “After that we thought, what about the battle scene? And so on and so on.” Over the next four and a half months, the project grew and grew.
“Almost everything was achieved through cold calling and a bit of luck. There were some real low points,” Sweiss says. “Many sponsors found it hard to imagine how tutus and ballet would help sell washing machines, or whatever. And there was the fact we were an unknown entity, and new to Amman.”
She and LaBonte list a dizzying array of setbacks, from having nowhere to rehearse to the costs of renting space at the Hyatt (tickets to the event had to be priced at JD25).
The Nutcracker would not have been possible without a huge amount of encouragement and support from local businesses and families. At one point there was no available space large enough to accommodate rehearsals for the hundreds of dancers and their amilies (and cars)—until the National Music Conservatory stepped up to offer its halls.
Sweiss and LaBonte originally wanted the matinee performance to be entirely charitable, until they ran into fundraising difficulties. So George and Sami Khoury paid for 100 girls from the Madrasati program to attend the performance, and gave everyone in the audience a goodie bag.
The costumes for the play were designed by local Jordanian businesswomen Hana Barkawi and the ladies at Kenz, a company that employs graduates from the Al Hussein Society for the Rehabilitation of the Physically Handicapped. Zalatimo sweets donated more than 6,000 pastries, while the owner of the Ramada Hotel and Suites arranged an after-party for the 120-member dance troupe.
As both Sweiss and LaBonte point out, The Nutcracker was not about foreigners coming in and putting on a show; at a certain point it seemed like half of Amman was involved in getting this show off the ground.
“Slowly but surely, whole families would come to watch rehearsals, and children as young as five or six would feel a sense of accomplishment and pride,” LaBonte concludes.