Twenty years ago, a tradition formed between Glenda Cochran and her young daughter, Coco — a tradition many other Birminghamians cherish and look forward to season after season. The Alabama Ballet, a premier company based right here in the Magic City, had just decided to perform George Balanchine’s famed version of The Nutcracker, the holiday classic that continues to capture audience's hearts.
Only eight ballet companies worldwide have the privilege to perform the Balanchine Nutcracker. First performed by the New York City Ballet in the mid-twentieth century, the production is a complexly choreographed visual marvel. It was ideal timing for Cochran and her daughter to immerse themselves in what would become one of the Ballet’s greatest achievements. With the same appreciation for a challenge that has led to her success as an attorney, Cochran applauded Coco as she rose to the occasion, holding various roles in the cast each December. Inspired, Cochran chose to get involved with the Ballet herself, as more than just the mother of a ballerina. Over the last two decades, her relationship with the nonprofit has continued to thrive.
“I came to the Ballet following my daughter. Now, she’s about to graduate law school from Tulane, and I’ve been involved for those 20 years as a board member, an executive board member and as an officer,” Cochran says. “At this time of year especially, I get really excited about the Ballet because of The Nutcracker.”
Why the Balanchine Nutcracker?
Darla Hoover, who serves as the Alabama Ballet’s Balanchine Trust Repetiteur, felt certain that the exquisite talent displayed among the dancers meant they should challenge themselves and embrace Balanchine’s version of the Christmas classic. “She suggested the Balanchine production, and we’ve been performing it ever since,” says Tracey Alvey, CEO and artistic director since 2007.
“It’s a beautiful production. The thing about the Balanchine version is that it creates dancers. In a lot of Nutcrackers, you see the ballet dancers simply dressing the stage. But in this one, they never stop — it's difficult and fast-moving choreography. Darla had been working with the company three or four years prior and knew our dancers very well,” she adds.
“This season marks the first time I have ever danced with a company entrusted to perform Balanchine’s Nutcracker,” shares Dagny Ingle, who is new to this year’s performance. “The sets, costumes and choreography will all be new to me, but they somehow seem familiar and truly classic. I am so excited to satisfy the dream of the little girl in me who always wanted to twirl in those iconic pink skirts from the ‘Waltz of The Flowers!’”
The marvel of original Karinska designs
While the Alabama Ballet is in highly exclusive company performing Balanchine’s Nutcracker – with greats such as The Royal Danish Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet — what is perhaps more astounding about our local company are the costumes worn each year by the dancers. These costumes are precise replicas of those worn in the first New York City Ballet performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker, designed by the Ukrainian costumier Barbara Karinska. An Academy Award-winner for her costumes in cinema, ballet, musical and dramatic theater, lyric opera and ice spectacles, Karinska made each piece by hand for the first 1954 performance. Today, Alabama Ballet dancers wear handmade replicas, lovingly maintained by Wardrobe Director Wendy Gamble, who assisted on their original construction with Betty Smith. Each handmade costume bears the portrait of George Balanchine on its fabric.
“We have over 200 costumes, all handmade, and they are incredible works of art,” Cochran says. “And we are one of the only companies in the world to follow the maintenance of these costumes to the letter. There is constant work involved. The candy canes, for example — each one has more than 254 jingle bells!”
Wendy Gamble agrees that each costume requires tender care to ensure readiness for each year’s performance. The beautiful tutus that you see on this month’s cover of Birmingham Lifestyle, for example, must be regularly inspected for rips or tears, cleaning needs, worn-out elastic and more. Tights are often in need of mending. Hats and shoes are often in need of repairs. “Whatever needs to be done,” Gamble says with a chuckle.
She adds that because The Nutcracker occurs each year— and not sporadically the way other classic ballet productions do — there is more potential for wear and tear on costumes. “But we always stay within [the original Karinska] design,” she assures me. “It’s an ongoing, yearlong process to make certain things look good on stage.”
The Alabama Ballet and Birmingham
The Alabama Ballet remains true to its mission: supporting the dancers and exalting the art form. Even throughout the pandemic, while performances were thinned out and audience members wore masks, the staff recognized the shows would need to go on … and they did. It was worth it, of course — the Ballet continues to gain accolades and attention as more aficionados learn of its quality.
“Particularly with The Nutcracker, we receive great community support, and last year was the best ever,” Alvey says, beaming. “We're a local organization that receives little funding from elsewhere, and it’s important that our local community supports us. If you have not seen ballet live, you should come and experience it; it doesn’t translate well to TV. You don’t get the full experience, beauty and intricacy if you are not in the live audience.”
According to Cochran, the passion and talent of Alabama Ballet frequently catches the eye of ballet companies from bigger cities looking to “poach” the best dancers. However, many of these dancers choose to remain in Birmingham. Indeed, many have danced with the Alabama Ballet for more than 10 years.
“They stay with us because it is such a rich community,” Cochran muses. “They dance because they love their art form — not to make money. I go to the ballet in other cities and even other countries, and you won’t find a better one than our little company in Birmingham.”