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Chris Van Allsburg's set designs to premiere at Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

Highly-acclaimed picture book author and illustrator, Chris Van Allsburg, describes his artistic process in redesigning the set for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker." The performance and the designs will premiere in Grand Rapids this Friday.

/Courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

Grand Rapids Ballet 2014 Performance Schedule for "The Nutcracker"

Friday, December 12 - 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, December 13 - 2:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 13 - 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 14 - 2:00 p.m.

Friday, December 19 - 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, December 20 - 2:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 20 - 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 21 - 2:00 p.m.

/Courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

/Courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

On Friday, December 12, the Grand Rapids Ballet will premiere their performance of "The Nutcracker." This year's performance will feature a brand new set design by the well-acclaimed picture book author and illustrator, Chris Van Allsburg, made in collaboration with Tony-award-winning set designer Eugene Lee. Van Allsburg's iconic artwork has, until this point, only been accompanied by his own stories, including such favorites as The Polar Express, Jumanji and Zathura. For this project, Van Allsburg tackled two new challenges: illustrating someone else's story and doing so in the medium of stage backdrops.

Where ordinarily Van Allsburg builds his stories from an image in his mind, "The Nutcracker" set design, which he completed for both the Grand Rapids and the Providence, Rhode Island ballets, required that he immerse himself in the source material. Luckily, he had plenty of experience with the ballet itself going into the project.

"I've seen so many "Nutcrackers." My daughter danced, and when she's home for Christmas, we usually watch some version of "The Nutcracker" on TV with her," he says.

But in order to find out where he could exercise his creativity, Van Allsburg went directly to the original source: E. T. A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."

"One way I thought to sort of get my palate clean was to go back to the source material and see if my imagination responded to it in a way that was different than the way that all the thousands of scenic designers have responded to it over the years," says Van Allsburg.

To some degree, designing artwork for someone else's story, especially one as well-known and beloved as "The Nutcracker," seems daunting. For Van Allsburg, it was a constraint. He couldn't completely remove the story from its original DNA- there were choreography and years of audience familiarity to consider.

"Because of the kind of status 'The Nutcracker' has as a traditional holiday activity to take your family to this dance which is set in the winter, around Christmas, you can't really throw all that away and set it in a tropical climate with no snow," Van Allsburg says. "That's an interesting idea to me, but I just know that's not what audiences are eager to see. So there's a little confinement there- a loss of freedom, I'd say."

Still, in examining the E. T. A. Hoffmann story, Van Allsburg was able to find some access points where he could make his unique mark. One example is in the way Van Allsburg read Drosselmeyer's character, Clara's godfather, in the story.

"My reaction to reading the text was that Drosselmeyer is really the puppet master of the entire story. My reading of the Hoffmann suggested he was more omnipotent, a more kind of controlling puppet master, so I wanted to make his character more present in the story," Van Allsburg says.

"When Eugene Lee and I were talking about a stage curtain that basically welcomes the audience to the theater, I said to him, I'd just like to put a big picture of Drosselmeyer there, because he's going to be the puppet master for the evening. Why not have him not only control the action of the story, but sort of welcome people to the theater," he says.

Clara's brother, Fritz, also shares the name of the beloved bull terrier who shows his form in nearly all of Van Allsburg's books. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fritz's name is emblazoned on a gift tag in one of the stage backdrops Van Allsburg designed. You will have to attend the ballet to see if he appears elsewhere.

Van Allsburg's career as an artist didn't begin with illustration and storytelling. Originally, he studied sculpture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Design. It was in sketching designs that he eventually felt the impulse to illustrate, which eventually translated to an impulse to tell stories.

"My initial efforts as a storyteller were stimulated by my efforts as an illustrator," says Van Allsburg, "I would have an image in my mind's eye and I would try to think 'Well, how did that happen?'"

Now, storytelling comes more naturally, Van Allsburg says.

"As I kept working, I started thinking about storytelling in different ways. It didn't require drawing sketches, I could sort of spin a yarn to myself without a pencil in my hand."

When it comes to inspiration, Van Allsburg says he mostly mines his own childhood tastes and experiences.

"I think artists probably all suffer from some degree of arrested development," he says. "I probably don't have to work as hard to remember what the 8 or 9 year old would have liked to see and read, because the 8 or 9 year old [in me] is still alive and kicking."

To see how Van Allsburg rejuvenated the Grand Rapids Ballet's Nutcracker set, buy tickets for this year's performance online.

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