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Take Five: Saint Louis Ballet's Gen Horiuchi on 'Nutcracker's' lucky 13

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2012 - The first time Saint Louis Ballet artistic director Gen Horiuchi experienced “The Nutcracker,” he was facing the audience, not the stage.

“I was one of the boys in the party scene in Act One,” Horiuchi said.

Horiuchi was a 10-year-old growing up in Tokyo in a family of ballet dancers when he landed his first part in “The Nutcracker.” Only a few years later, he won the Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition, which brought him to the American School of Ballet. Two years after that, he joined the George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, where he went on to became a principal dancer.

Since then, his career highlights have included dancing as Mercury in “Persophone,” a role Balanchine created for him, performing as Mr. Mistoffelees in “Cats” on Broadway and in London, and choreographing the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

In 2000, he joined Saint Louis Ballet, where he has staged “The Nutcracker” every year since. About 40 years after Horiuchi’s “Nutcracker” debut as a child in Japan, his 2012 Ballet Saint Louis performances mark the company’s 13th straight production of the story of young Clara and her nutcracker prince.

Horiuchi talked with the Beacon about the company’s staging of the classic, 19th-century-Germany holiday tale, which casts 100 students in roles ranging from party children to mice to toy soldiers.

The Beacon: Has “The Nutcracker” has led many children all over the world to fall in love with ballet?

Gen Horiuchi: In this country, especially, it is the ballet with the largest attendance, by far. So it really is an introduction to ballet.

As a director, what options does the “The Nutcracker” offer?

Horiuchi: With the Tchaikovsky score, there is an order to the music from the start until the end, and you can’t really change too much because the story goes with it.

But the number of children can be different, the costume designs can be different and the set designs can be different.

Whenever I stage a full-length ballet, I also make sure that the story, scene to scene, moves very quickly. So there’s no blackout of 10 seconds or a curtain that has to come down for a minute where they have to wait for the scene change. In some productions I’ve seen, they can take forever to change scenery or move furniture.

How does Saint Louis Ballet’s presentation change each year?

Horiuchi: I am always looking for improvement. Every year, I compare with the year before and it’s like, “OK, that part didn’t work or that part could be improved or it could move faster.” Every year, I make small changes for the better, hopefully.

I think the audience who comes to see it for several years will find several changes here and there. That’s a fun way to look at “The Nutcracker,” to see what’s different this year.

How has the production evolved as “The Nutcracker” moved to different venues?

Horiuchi: In 2000, when I first started, I had this performance at the Westport Playhouse. It’s kind of  like a convention center so I didn’t have sets, I only had costumes and some slides. I stayed there for two years then went to the Florissant Civic Center for two years, which is a little bigger but still it’s a community theater, so maybe we had a few drops in the back.

Then, from 2004 until 2009, we moved to the Edison at Washington University. That was a mid-sized theater so we were able to have our own sets and drops. We even made our own original sets for the Edison. We stayed there five years, and then, since 2009, we are at the Touhill, with full, grand-scale sets and costumes.

Is the audience growing?

Horiuchi: Last year we received over 12,000 people, and the year before it was about 10,000. This year, we hope for the same or even more, with 13 performances. Last year, we had nine and the year before there were also nine, so we’ve increased the number by four, with two full weekends of performances.

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