A collaboration between the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Philadelphia History Museum is showing what happens when the ingenuity and creativity of Drexel students and staff collides with one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most beloved holiday traditions.
Five Drexel students created a behind-the-scenes exhibit celebrating the 45th anniversary of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” On display from Nov. 14 to Jan. 31 in the Philadelphia History Museum’s Community History Gallery, “Behind the Scenes of the Nutcracker” coincides with the annual winter presentation of the classic ballet.
“We are so glad that we got the chance to work on such a rich project. ‘The Nutcracker’ is such a Philadelphia institution,” Jody Graff, assistant professor and the project’s director, said.
Behind the project are four senior graphic design majors: Niki Benedetto, Tawona Chimimba, Soha Qadir and Avery Sohn. The fifth member of the team, Kristen Beck, also a graphic arts and design major, graduated this past year.
The exhibit opened with a reception Nov. 14. Members of the Pennsylvania Ballet were present to interact with visitors, including the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Mouse King themselves.
“It was a completely different space after seeing it in nothing but pieces for so long. When the gallery was finally installed and full of visitors enjoying our work, just as much as we did when we were making it, the space became magical,” Qadir said.
The opening reception was the first time that the students who worked on the project were able to see it in use and interacting with the public.
“Actually seeing everything we envisioned come to life was the best part of the entire experience,” Chimimba, a senior on the project, said.
“As an educator, it was so important to see my students witness other people interacting with what they had designed,” Graff said.
“Behind the Scenes of the Nutcracker” consists of 30 square feet in the Philadelphia History Museum’s Community History Gallery. A 10-foot Christmas tree, ornate with the pointe shoes of ballerinas and the slippers of children and male dancers, greets guests at the exhibit’s entrance. Visitors can watch a video created for the exhibit, which features past performances and interviews with those involved in the creation of the production. Children and adults alike can use a 4-by-8 mirror to learn the five basic ballet poses. Various panels throughout the exhibit focus on the history of the Pennsylvania Ballet and “The Nutcracker.”
“My main job was to work on the infographic snowflake panel, which reflected on the history of ‘The Nutcracker.’ Each snowflake represents a person. I cut out 124 snowflakes representing 124 dancers and 50 snowflakes for the 50 members of the orchestra,” Qadir said.
Key pieces of history on display include a program from the very first performance of “The Nutcracker” and sketches from the 2007 redesign of the ballet’s costumes. The exhibit also features many iconic costume pieces, including the Mouse King’s head, the grandmother’s necklace and a tiara worn by the Sugar Plum Fairy, offering viewers a chance to see them up close in detail for the first time.
The project began as an independent study course in the 2013 winter term. The students met with members of the ballet to discuss potential ideas for the exhibit before proposing three different concepts to the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia History Museum. After a period of storyboarding and conceptualizing, the project was stagnant until the beginning of the fall term, when it picked up momentum. The majority of the exhibition was then conceptualized, created and installed over a period of six weeks.
“We had so many late nights together that we started to get delirious, but for all our complaining, it was an awesome experience,” Qadir said. “We got to work with so many professionals. I’d tell my ideas to Jody, and she would really incorporate our thoughts into the project. It was great to know we were working with a professor as [equals]. It was a really grown-up moment for us.”
Graff, who is also the director of Drexel’s graphic design program, will continue to work with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Drexel students to create a new exhibit at the Free Library Main Branch. Featuring glass cases filled with artifacts from “The Nutcracker,” this exhibit will begin in March 2014 after the current “Behind the Scenes of the Nutcracker” ends.
“Giving students the chance to work with an organization that is such a cultural treasure to the City of Philadelphia is so unique and wonderful. No matter who you talk to, someone always has a story to share about their experience with ‘The Nutcracker.’ There’s just an incredible connection in the Philadelphia area to that production,” Graff said.