The winter holiday season is chock full of tradition, and one of the most beloved traditions this time of year is seeing the beloved ballet The Nutcracker. Except for the sourest curmudgeons, The Nutcracker dances, music, story, and costumes are major fan favorites, for many reasons, and that’s not just the opinion of the average showgoer, but of the dancers and musicians as well.
Tim O’Keefe has danced The Nutcracker, and is now working behind the scenes as an administrator for the Texas Ballet Theater (TBT). He first saw The Nutcracker in 1981, at the Houston Ballet, then later danced in it. Now as the recently installed Artistic Director of the Texas Ballet Theater, he has seen this dance from all different angles. (O’Keefe succeeded Ben Stevenson, O.B.E. in this position.)
A Houston native who began his career as a dancer on Broadway, “I actually started out in tap and jazz and did musical theater. And that was in 1975, when I was 15”,” O’Keefe joined the Houston Ballet as a corps de ballet member in 1982 and was promoted to soloist in 1985, then became a principal in 1995. He stepped away from dancing in 2002 to assume his position as associate artistic director at TBT from 2002–22, then later serving as the acting artistic director.
I was pleased to hear that two of O’Keefe’s favorite parts of the ballet are two that I also treasure, “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” both buoyant and immediately recognizable. Though The Nutcracker is familiar to many, it is rather challenging to stage it well. “There are many challenges such as working with over 100 children” throughout the many performances,” says O’Keefe.
When asked if he ever grows tired of The Nutcracker? O’Keefe says no, “because I came from musical theater and you did [each show] eight times a week, and I like doing the same thing over and over. I like being comfortable on the stage. I like the stage time.” It seems that is the overall experience that dancers want, even with a so-familiar classic such as The Nutcracker: a feeling of stepping into a comfortable yet exhilarating role, and entertaining audiences.
Another way in which O’Keefe and the company keep The Nutcracker fresh for themselves, is to have the casts play different roles each year. This practice can also delight the devoted audience members of TBT.
The company also wants to strike a balance between revered tradition and freshness, which is not always easy to achieve. O’Keefe notes that, “innovation is great but the story’s central theme has to remain.” He described how the party scene in Act One has “been made fresh, with so much going on that you notice different things each time you watch it.”
O’Keefe discusses a bit about how the company uses modern technology in its performances. Some technology as an alternative to “cumbersome sets” are put into place such as digital projections. In addition, “cool and innovative lighting has an effect on how costumes appear;” but the main part of the performances, the live dancing, is evergreen.
On the special challenges of presenting ballet in Dallas, the Texas Ballet Theater is in competition with other forms of entertainment such as sports, theater, and art. “Dallas has plenty going on,” O’Keefe says, adding “but the business community and local patrons do help out the company a great deal.”
If you are in Dallas or Fort Worth, get your tickets now to see The Nutcracker and you will be whisked away to a familiar yet enchanting place. Discover the whimsical brilliance of not only the dancers and musicians, but also the tireless efforts of Tim O’Keefe and the rest of his company. They help make Texas a destination for quality ballet.
Performing at Winspear Opera House & Bass Performance Hall
Nov. 24-Dec. 3 & Dec. 8-24, 2023
– Ellen Levitt