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.