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A New Take On A Holiday Classic: Ballet Wichita Modernizes 'The Nutcracker'

Carla Eckels
Ballet Wichita’s guest artistic director Karen Brown confers with director and choreographer Sean McLeod during a recent rehearsal.";

Ballet Wichita’s annual performance of "The Nutcracker" premieres on Friday -- but it won’t be the same show you’ve seen in the past. It's "The New Nutcracker".  Guest Artistic Director Karen Brown and Director and Choreographer Sean McLeod are bringing some new moves to the holiday classic.                                                    

The opening notes of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" are familiar to people everywhere, especially to fans in Wichita. For 44 years, Ballet Wichita has staged an annual performance of the holiday classic. This year, the audience will see some changes to the look and feel of the production.

“I wanted to contemporize the ballet, so I wanted to make it happen in 2017," Director and Choreographer Sean McLeod says. “One of the goals that I said to the cast is that I wanted to make one of the first 'Nutcrackers' that puts no one to sleep in the first act. We all in the world of classical ballet and we all in the world of 'The Nutcracker' realize that our audience is going to sleep at one portion in the first act. It is a given. We don’t apologize for it, we just do it.”

Credit Carla Eckels
Ballet Wichita’s guest artistic director Karen Brown, director and choreographer Sean McLeod, and conductor Wesley DeSpain and Arabian soloist and Associate Choreographer Kierstyn Zaykoski.

McLeod says one of the challenges that they took on was to be able to see if they could construct something that didn't put anyone to sleep. For him, it meant going back and looking at E.T.A. Hoffman's original story.

"Well, I think that this issue is that nothing is ever better than a good basic story," McLeod says. "E.T.A. Hoffman wrote one back in the 1800s and it’s brilliant, and I like to say that it’s like a Harry Potter-like experience where he wrote more than just the primary storyline.

"If you read between the lines, Hoffman was writing a message about the celebration of culture. I think that the land of sweets, really, what made it sweet was that he celebrated people’s culture,” McLeod says. "He didn’t just say tea and coffee, he said 'tea Chinese, coffee Arabian.' ... He’s talking about culture, and he’s looking about the value in culture. So for myself, I went ahead and said our second act will be about inclusion."

Credit Carla Eckels/KMUW
Sydney Mansaw is in her 10th year of the production. She is assisted by Director and Choreographer Sean McLeod.

McLeod has taken that storyline and made subtle changes to characters and bigger changes to some of the more visual aspects of the ballet.

"We are very excited about what’s the expectation," says Guest Artistic Director Karen Brown. "I mean, everyone is just waiting to see this new product that Sean has developed, choreographed, adapted, directed, conceiving the costumes, the lighting design -- all of it just came out of his imagination.”

Related: New Conductor Takes Baton At Ballet Wichita

Another change that McLeod made with his adaptation of "The Nutcracker" is with the character normally depicted as a clockmaker or magician: McLeod made Drosselmeyer a wizard.

"Pure and simple," he says. "I decided to take the cloak off of it and go, 'He is a wizard and what he wields is time and to infer love into spaces where it might not be.'"

Both Brown and McLeod have become a couple of pretty established figures in the world of ballet. Brown became a principal ballerina with The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. She’s traveled the globe and enjoyed a long career as a dancer, an arts administrator, and a teacher.

McLeod is an international producer and president of the NY Institute of Dance and Education, as well as the founder of the NY Dance Festival. He’s also the founder for Reaching Higher Ground Consulting.

“I say I came to Wichita because of the legendary Karen Brown of the classical ballet world invited me. That’s why I came. But the reason I’m staying is because of the people in Wichita."

Even with all of their credentials, it’s rare for African-Americans to lead ballet companies. McLeod distinctly remembers what Brown told him when she convinced him to come to Wichita and set "the jewel of the ballet world," "The Nutcracker."

"She’s like, 'Sean, name a place where ballet companies are picking a black leader, then name a place where they are picking two,'" McLeod says. 

This year’s cast will have many of the same dancers, as well as six from outside Wichita who rehearsed with McLeod in New York.

McLeod says he is pleasantly surprised with the caliber of dancers that Wichita has to offer, and even invited one from Ballet Wichita to dance with his company in New York.

“I say I came to Wichita because of the legendary Karen Brown of the classical ballet world invited me," McLeod says. "That’s why I came. But the reason I’m staying is because of the people in Wichita."


Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.


Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.