Stepping into the Albano Ballet Company's headquarters on Girard Avenue in Hartford this time of year is to enter another world: the unseen chaos that underpins the elegant, seamless beauty of the "Nutcracker."
On the outside, the dark brown, barn structure looks cavernous. Inside, it shrinks. Joseph Albano, 73, sits in his office, surrounded by papers, photos, and even costumes. Amidst it all, he is clearly the center of gravity.
Eager to find mementos to talk about his 50-year run presenting the holiday ballet, Albano digs out a pile he has dubbed the "Julia box," which he recently unearthed as he researched the history of his ballet. His "Nutcracker" celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a gala in addition to the usual scheduled performances in Middletown, Mohegan Sun and New Britain.
He pulls out a flower pressed between a program and the brittle remains drift onto his leg. A glittery butterfly is extracted next, and he reflects on how he almost didn't give Julia Frederick, sitting paces away, a part he felt she was too tall to dance. He couldn't see how her body could execute the fast-paced work — but Frederick, who danced for both George Balanchine and Roland Petit, surprised him.
Frederick, originally from Massachusetts, furthered her training under Albano, and the two were also formerly married. She danced in the first "Nutcracker" as the Dew Drop. She has also danced the title role, the Sugar Plum fairy, in Albano's "Nutcracker". Fittingly, she now dances as the mother in the prologue as Albano dances the toymaker, Drosselmeyer.
It is a year to peddle through memories of people, and events. One person who comes up frequently is Paul Russell, now deceased, who was a principal dancer with the Dance Theater Harlem and The San Francisco Ballet. Russell did a few roles in the early "Nutcrackers", and danced as the prince in a 1970 Hartford production.
Frederick, who is associate director of the company, smiles quietly when she is told the box will be hers only when Albano dies, and that right now, she is not allowed to peek into it. Frederick takes the decree with equanimity.
That is because Albano shows no signs of slowing down. He can't as long he is producing the "Nutcracker".
It takes a lot of energy, both creative and logistic, to get a huge story ballet like the "Nutcracker" off the ground and charm audiences with both ephemeral longing as well as holiday festivity.
And Albano is the man who gives the ballet the push to flight, both on and off stage. It is Albano who orchestrates the creative vision, trains dancers, and keeps tinkering and adapting.
Onstage, he ushers in the magic as the enigmatic Santa Claus figure, Drosselmeyer, a part he has been dancing for almost as long as his ballet has been in existence.
When Albano debuted his version of the "Nutcracker" in 1962, he launched, at the age of 23, what would become a signature achievement. He pioneered an American "Nutcracker" — at the time, it was one of only five U.S. productions of this opulent story ballet that has its roots in the Russian court.
"It's about Americanizing the concept of what a ballet can become in this lifestyle — not the Russian lifestyle," says Albano, who adapted his presentation to differ from what he had seen as a child, studying under Russian natives Margarita and Maximilian Froman in his native New London. The Fromans both trained and danced at the Bolshoi, eventually dancing for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.
The iconic "Nutcracker" doll is fashioned into a Punch and Judy image in Albano's version of the ballet. Other American touches include the Cracker Jack in Act Two, who comes out with hula hoops for a gymnastic tour de force. In other versions, it is three men executing a distinctly Russian dance.
His "Nutcracker" was borne out of the former Hartford Ballet, which Albano founded. Back then, it was more of what Albano would term a recital piece, with only a few professional dancers combined with students from the Hartford Ballet School.
"I grew it in order to grow audiences and support the ballet. I did it to get audiences into the Bushnell," says Albano, who was artistic director of the former Hartford Ballet for its first 12 years. He grew audiences to 2,500, he recalls.
Now, his "Nutcracker", which he started under his name in 1971, attracts an audience between 12,000 and 14,000 among the three venues. This year, he has 24 professional dancers and a cast of more than 100.
There have been tough years, both personally and economically, but Albano has persevered to survive the competition from the former Hartford Ballet (now defunct) as well as touring Russian "Nutcracker"s so popular after the Soviet Union fell.
"I can't tell you how I struggled," Albano says of the years in which his resources were few, and to stay afloat meant low overhead by being a one-man show — managing everything from designing and sewing costumes to set painting, marketing and choreography.
One of the enduring qualities of his ballet, says Amy Manise, who danced for 20 years for Albano, is that it appeals to children, and maintains tradition, as well as live music.
Manise, of West Hartford, returned to the Albano fold about four years ago. Her daughter, Lilliane Hohl, will dance Clara next year.
"He has families that will only go to see his show," says Manise. "And then they bring their families. It has become a tradition."
That tradition is founded on consistency, says Albano, who has kept the ballet tied to its most enduring quality: the lush Tchaikovsky score.
"The ballet has to be beautiful," says Albano. "You can't take that story and change the sensibility that the timbre suggests."
One of the most visible changes in the Albano Ballet through the years has been the use of larger sets. In addition to legs, which expand the scenery of a set, his special effects are much improved such as the growing Christmas tree that towers four stories high.
The only venue that can accommodate all the legs is Mohegan Sun, which has also given the production high tech lighting.
"They've turned it into what the Trans Siberian Orchestra is without the fire. It is a light production as well as a ballet," says Albano.
Although the grandeur of Albano's "Nutcracker" has increased, what seems to stay constant, through lean times as well as good, is the community of local dancers and friends that adhere to it, growing up through the ballet. One of the stalwarts in recent years has been Eric Carnes, 23, a Newington native who began performing the character Fritz, Clara's brother, at age 12.
"When I dance the Prince I always watch Fritz perform onstage when I'm backstage," says Carnes. "It feels like I've come full circle."
Albano's character Drosselmeyer, for his part, began as a bit of a ghoulish figure, with a putty nose and ratty wig, as inspired from sketches that illustrated the E.T.A. Hoffman story line of the ballet.
But Albano was young, and handsome. He did not want the looming nose, so after the first year he abandoned it and appeared onstage as a dancer, executing quick steps and leaps. As of late, Albano plays up the crotchety aspects of his character during performances. When he executes an exuberant move, he will bend over, and grip his lower back as if in pain.
But pain is not what The "Nutcracker" has brought Albano, or the legions of children who have flocked to perform in the show, some weaving the ballet into their own life story, as well.
"I've had a dream," says Albano. "I've lived that dream, and the "Nutcracker" has become part of that dream. In a way, I think I've become Drosselmeyer."