The story of “The Nutcracker” is usually told through graceful ballerinas spinning and jumping across a stage.
Those who opt to see the production at Saratoga Springs High School on Friday or Saturday will find dancers of a different sort.
Lithe marionettes, dressed in intricate costumes with carefully constructed faces, will dance the “Grand Pas de deux” and pirouette through “Waltz of the Flowers.”
“A normal ballet, you can see in many towns; they all perform ‘Nutcracker’ because it’s so popular. But to see it done with marionettes is really very special, and I think [people] will not see anything like [it] very soon,” said Philippe Brunner.
He’s the artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, one of the longest-running institutions of its kind. The company has been coming to the United States to tour and premiere works since 1951, but this is the first time the Saratoga Performing Arts Center has brought it to the Capital Region.
“When I got into the business many, many decades ago … I was working for a booking agency, and the Salzberg marionettes were one of the most popular touring companies anywhere in the states at the time,” said Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of SPAC.
It’s part of the reason she’s been trying to bring the group to Saratoga for the past two years. This weekend’s shows are part of SPAC’s growing winter/holiday programming, which features performances by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and singing group VOCES8.
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s version of “The Nutcracker” is a unique visual twist on the classic ballet version.
Brunner, who plays many roles in the production, has been a part of the company since 2003, though his love for the art form began well before that.
“When I was a child, I was taken by my parents to Salzburg and we spent several years making holidays [there]. Then I was going as a child to the Marionette Theatre and there I was hooked,” Brunner said.
During their school years, he and a friend went on to found the Berlin Young Marionette Opera. However, he left the field for several years to work at a record company in Munich before realizing how much he missed puppeteering.
“So I took the decision to transform my hobby into my real job,” Brunner said.
Since joining, he has performed in “The Nutcracker” many times, though the company transformed its entire production two years ago.
“We are working with nearly 100 puppets because the story is really about Clara falling asleep and then dreaming about her journey into the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. So there she sees many different characters, so we need many, many different puppets.
“It’s a very complicated show, but just two years ago we revised the complete show and we added new scenes, so it’s really the whole ballet that we are performing,” Brunner said.
The company makes all the puppets as well as the set pieces, which change throughout the show.
“We have a big scene in the beginning which is outside of the house in the winter, and then we go into the house and then there’s a huge transformation with the Christmas tree. The whole world around Clara seems to grow … Christmas tree is growing. Then we go into a winter wonderland, then there is a big flight with a balloon through the universe and through the clouds. We land and we go to the dances. We land in Spain, we go to Arabia, we go to China, we go to the ‘Waltz of Flowers’ to end finally again in the house, so there’s a lot of scene changes that happen during this one and a half hours,” Brunner said.
In most productions, one puppeteer will control one puppet. But because there are so many characters in this show, puppeteers often have to control more than one, which is incredibly difficult, said Brunner.
“To really play a puppet to perfection, you need both hands. But we are quite a large ensemble of 10 puppeteers for ‘The Nutcracker,’ so we try to fulfill all this and really get into the playfulness, and the audience can sense this amount of different characters that appear, so we change puppets all the time,” Brunner said.
It’s especially challenging considering how many styles of dance are featured in the production.
“To make those movements is really very difficult with the puppets because you know they are lightweight, you need to feel the ground, you need to get the right information from the puppeteer down to the puppet. You need a lot of training to be able to fulfill all these things — and special puppets — and this makes things difficult but also very challenging for us,” Brunner said.
Typically when a puppeteer joins the Salzburg company, they’ll have to train for a minimum of six to eight years. Brunner likens it to learning a new instrument: Practicing is key.
“The art of marionette playing — puppets on strings — unfortunately is dying because it is very complicated. You have many different kinds of wonderful puppet theaters, but they mostly perform with hand puppets or puppets on rods or shadow puppets. But marionette itself is very hard to learn. So not many people like to invest so much time,” Brunner said.
The Salzburg group has been touring in the United States for decades, and Brunner said they always enjoy visiting here because of the reactions they get from audience members.
“We love to perform for the audience in the U.S. because they’re so open. They like to react, they are not shy. They cheer and they laugh and they are astounded. They just follow us on this trip to their own imagination. When we can show people that everything that’s happened is in their own mind, this is for many of them — especially for adults — is really something they think they have lost with their childhood,” Brunner said.
‘The Nutcracker’ by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Saratoga Springs High School, 1 Blue Streak Blvd.
TICKETS: $25 for adults, $15 for children under 15
MORE INFO: spac.org
Fun Fact: The Salzburg Marionette Theatre inspired the Lonely Goatherd scene in the 1965 film adaptation of “The Sound of Music.” The company also has its own version of the production, which premiered in 2007.