For the past 52 years, Fernand Nault’s version of The Nutcracker by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens has filled Montreal’s largest stage at Place des Arts during the month of December. Since 2014, Nault’s Nutcracker has also drawn audiences to the elegant Janacek Theatre in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic, in a production by Ballet of the National Theatre Brno. The company’s director, Mario Radacovsky, is thoroughly familiar with Nault’s ballet, having danced the major Nutcracker roles during his years as a principal dancer with Les Grands.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ Raphael Bouchard and Myriam Simon in Fernand Nault’s The Nutcracker | Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

Realizing the popular appeal of Nault’s traditional classical choreography, Radacovsky first brought this version into the repertoire of the Slovak National Ballet in Bratislava, Slovakia, when he was appointed artistic director there in 2008. Several years later, when he became director of the Brno company’s 50 dancers, his first action was to buy Bratislava’s Nutcracker sets and costumes.

Seeing the Montreal and Brno productions within 10 days of each other last December was fascinating for several small differences. For instance, overall the choreography and décor in Brno accurately reflected Nault’s vision of a family gathering and subsequent trip to a fantasy world, but there were some significant differences in deference to local culture. 

Ladies in billowing colourful gowns, men in evening wear and children in holiday outfits by designer Ludmila Varossova waltzed amid the same Act One setting representing the von Stahlbaum ballroom that Peter Horne created in Montreal, with its owl-topped grandfather clock and magically growing Christmas tree. Varossova’s darker hue for the rats and mice gave them added menace. Veronika Zlamalova’s interpretation of the child Clara had more nuance and telling glances than normally seen in the role, and her green eyeshadow suggested a girl on the verge of womanhood.

In Montreal, when the children entreated the housemaid to reveal the Christmas tree, they pressed their outstretched hands together. In Brno, in keeping with Czech culture, the children rubbed their hands, a gesture familiar to local audiences. André Laprise, the trustee of the Fernand Nault Trust who taught the children in Brno, says he is certain Nault would have approved the change.

Ballet of the National Theatre Brno in Fernand Nault’s The Nutcracker | Photo: Ctibor Bachratý

Dr. Drosselmeyer is one of three roles — the others are King of the Sweets and in the Russian dance — that allow for improvisation and embellishment. As performed by the distinguished veteran dancer and Brno ballet master Ivan Prikasky, Dr. Drosselmeyer was friendly and gentle, without the underlying menace that John Stanzel and Sylvain Lafortune in past years in Montreal added for depth of character. The latest Montreal Dr. Drosselmeyer, Jean-Sébastien Couture, was fun-loving and flamboyant. As for the Russian dance, the trepak, Les Grands’ André Santos brought the house down with handless somersaults, high-flying splits and endless pirouettes.

The second-act Kingdom of Sweets scene offered visual spectacle. In Brno, as in Montreal, the curtain opened on Cotton-Candy Angels in bright orange wings and tunics, fluttering their hands amid a low swirling mist. The clownish King of the Sweets (Uladzimir Ivanou) was borderline over-the-top, a common danger in a character whose buffoonish behaviour can generate laughs simply by executing Nault’s charming choreography. 

Subsequent tableaux presented a round-the-world variety of national dances ranging from the sensual to the boldly athletic. In Montreal, the program no longer refers to these dances in nationalist terms to avoid ethnic stereotypes. The Spanish Dance is simply called Chocolate; the Oriental dance, Coffee; and the Chinese dance,Tea. The Brno program still carries the national designations. Brno has also retained the wagging pointed fingers and bobbing heads in the Chinese trio. In Montreal, these gestures were dropped a couple of years ago after accusations across North America that such characterization was racially stereotypical. 

The final grand pas de deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Andrea Popov Smejkalova) and her Cavalier (Andrej Szabo, a guest artist from Bratislava Ballet) brought out the classical arsenal of lifts, arabesques and pirouettes that Nault knew intimately from his days as American Ballet Theatre’s ballet master. Smejkalova displayed remarkably effortless ease of movement in adagio and at quick speed.

Ballet of the National Theatre Brno in Fernand Nault’s The Nutcracker | Photo: Ctibor Bachratý

Actively maintaining the choreographic legacy of even the most eminent deceased choreographers poses a challenge. Montreal-born Nault (1920-2006) offers a case in point. A leading Canadian dance figure in the period after the Second World War, Nault forged a career as dancer and ballet master for two decades with American Ballet Theatre and subsequently choreographed almost 30 works in Montreal as resident choreographer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. At Les Grands, two of his works, Carmina Burana, which he created for Louisville Ballet in 1962, and the rock ballet Tommy (1970) became international hits. But since his death, his only ballets to be staged to date other than The Nutcracker are La Fille Mal Gardée in Kansas City, and Carmina Burana in Atlanta, Denver and Seoul (where the artistic director was a former dancer with Les Grands Ballets).

To mark the 100th anniversary of Nault’s birthday in 2020, Laprise created the Fonds philanthropique Fernand Nault to raise funds to recreate his old ballets. “If there’s money to bring back Nault works,” says Laprise, “it would help to re-establish their worth.”

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal in Fernand Nault’s The Nutcracker | Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

—VICTOR SWOBODA