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    José Mateo keeps ‘The Nutcracker’ fresh

    26 seasons later, he is still refining his annual holiday ballet

    Peter DiMuro and Amy Chan during dress rehearsal for José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker.”
    Josh Reynolds for The Globe
    Peter DiMuro and Amy Chan during dress rehearsal for José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker.”

    For many dance organizations, the annual production of “The Nutcracker” is the cash cow that helps fund projects throughout the rest of the year. For José Mateo Ballet Theatre, which has been presenting “The Nutcracker” for 26 seasons, the production provides an opportunity for the company to cultivate audiences and bond with communities. It’s currently performing the ballet through Dec. 15 at its home base, the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge, after dates earlier this month in Duxbury. And for the third year it will bring the show to Dorchester’s Strand Theatre Dec. 20-22, where it plans to provide 2,000 free tickets to needy families. The Globe spoke with Mateo recently about how his production has endured and evolved.

    Q. After a quarter-century, how do you keep “The Nutcracker” fresh?

    A. I always remind the company that it’s a children’s ballet, and we have the responsibility to engage and arouse in them that kind of wonder they expect from special experiences. It’s also a particularly important opportunity to return to something very familiar as a way of strengthening the company technically. I’m constantly restoring and changing the choreography to help the flow and capture some of the subtleties of phrasing that best represents the score.

    The mice in dress rehearsal for José Mateo’s “The Nutcracker.”


    Q. This is the first year since the beginning that you are not dancing any performances as Drosselmeyer. How does that feel?

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    A. It’s interesting, because I can step outside of [the ballet] and take a different perspective, give it a cleaner, fresher look. And every time there’s an artist trying to prepare a role he’s never danced before is an opportunity to introduce change in terms of how they can potentially impact the whole.

    Q. Making his debut as Drosselmeyer is Peter DiMuro, who just returned to Boston to become the new director of The Dance Complex. What does he bring to the role?

    A. Peter brings a different character and tenor. There’s a lot of room in the role to see the actual person, which is a wonderful thing. This Drosselmeyer has to focus on communicating something to each of the players he interacts with, and Peter seems to be enjoying that challenge.

    Q. I understand some of your professional dancers this year began their early stage careers as children in your production.


    A. They did. I want to say half the women. It’s surprising. In our school, it’s almost a policy that no one be pushed into being a dancer. It’s a very difficult profession, a difficult lifestyle. But in spite of that, a lot of our students continue. To see our own students grow into our company, the kind of understanding and rapport that builds from a young person to adulthood, is very rewarding.

    Q. Your production incorporates nearly 200 children from around New England. What are the challenges of wrangling all those kids?

    A. I personally enjoy it. I think over the years, I’ve gotten rather good at it, and I enjoy watching them develop the level of attentiveness that a lot of kids never get to know. You have to be very demanding of their attention, but do it in a way that they’re not aware of, get them to be cooperative and realize their participation is important, that a whole team is relying on each of their contributions. It’s a very wonderful transformation.

    “I think its popularity is attributable to the accessibility and charm and range. It’s melodically rich, masterfully constructed,” said José Mateo, on what makes “The Nutcracker” so special.

    Q. I know a point of pride for you is that you hold open auditions for “The Nutcracker,” which brings in a lot of diversity. In fact, one of your six Claras, Leila Dixon, is a young girl who’s half African-American, half Native American, right?

    A. Yes, she actually happens to be one of our students. But there is a deliberate strategy to make diversity happen. Oftentimes just [being] welcoming isn’t enough. You have to be more proactive to reach out to different communities who might not otherwise find you. We want to make sure to engage the neighborhoods where we’re performing, so when they come see “The Nutcracker” they see people from their communities represented. Our African-American population in the cast is clearly increasing because of our relationship with the Strand, and that’s part of a much larger effort to begin a training program in Dorchester.


    Q. Why is this ballet so enduring?

    A. In my opinion, it’s the score. I think its popularity is attributable to the accessibility and charm and range. It’s melodically rich, masterfully constructed, and for me, that was always a premise from year one, that we would try to represent the score with continuity.

    Q. What makes your production distinctive?

    A. I think it’s partly that level of continuity. Some “Nutcrackers” have as many as five choreographers, with different ways of working with the music that sometimes interrupts the continuity. We’re taking a story that is somewhat fragmented and potentially even confusing for children, where most of the action occurs in Act I, and trying to bring continuity that will allow people to be seduced into the dancing of the second act. From the beginning, we try to dance Tchaikovsky’s music, establish this ballet is about dance.

    Q. What’s it like for you after that final performance?

    A. [Laughs.] Honestly, there’s great relief. And I’m always regretful that we don’t have enough time to refine and refine and refine. Everyone will ask, “Aren’t you tired of ‘Nutcracker’?” But honestly, I don’t tire of it. I see new challenges in it all the time. I think that’s what art making is. It’s bottomless in terms of the depths you want to reach.

    Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Campbell can be reached at