'Passion to believe' fuels Albano's 'Nutcracker'

Submitted photo Albano Ballet Associate Director Julia Frederick poses with a poster for an early production of Albano's “Nutcracker” at The Bushnell in Hartford.

When Joseph Albano's "Nutcracker" dances onto stages over the next few weeks, it will mark 50 years since the very first performance of this show - a show that was only the fifth version of "The Nutcracker" to originate in America.

Here is how it grew into a long-running tradition.

New London native Albano was fresh out of Trinity College in 1960 when he dreamt of creating a "Nutcracker." The idea grew out of another driving force - his desire to form a ballet company.

"It was a vehicle for me to choreograph. That was the whole thing. I wanted to create," he says. "At the same time, I recognized I needed bodies to create on. So I therefore had to train them."

And, he says, he had to provide them with jobs. He figured if he could do that for 24 weeks, the dancers could then collect unemployment. But he also had to make sure there was a market for the product.

His first step was founding a nonprofit organization. He brought together his sister, Dolores Schargus, who was a realtor in southeastern Connecticut and was involved with the state Republican Party; attorney Vincent Laudone, who was the head of the Connecticut Republican Party; and two Trinity professors - John Dando, a familiar figure in radio and TV, and George Nichols, a theater aficionado.

With the support of those four people, Albano formed a nonprofit: The Hartford Ballet. He remained artistic director there for 12 years before establishing the Hartford-based Albano Ballet Company and continuing to present "The Nutcracker" with his new company.

"I just had this idea. (It was) the dream and something I never lost - the passion. The passion to believe," he says.

Indeed, Albano recalls having managers at The Bushnell in Hartford tell him he wouldn't be able to draw a significant audience for dance. Even the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, they said, didn't attract an audience of more than 300 to 500 to the Bushnell.

Albano's response?

"I said, 'Watch me,'" he says. "I always had that arrogant boldness which I felt was essential in pioneering."

The numbers tell the story: Last year, Albano's "Nutcracker" played to audiences of more than 4,000 at each performance at the Mohegan Sun Arena. And that's just one of three venues it plays each year, along with Central Connecticut State University in New Britain and Middletown High School.

The home for Albano's "Nutcracker" in southeastern Connecticut has moved over time. In the early 1980s, performances took place at New London High School. Albano wanted to add an orchestra, but the high school auditorium lacked an orchestra pit, so "The Nutcracker" moved to Dealey Center on the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. After 9/11, base security tightened, and Albano's "Nutcracker" had to find a new venue, playing the Garde Arts Center in New London for a year before settling into the Mohegan Sun for the last 11 years.

In addition to staging this year's performances, the Albano Ballet Company is holding an anniversary gala Saturday in the auditorium of the Intensive Education Academy in West Hartford.

Albano Ballet Associate Director Julia Frederick gives credit to the longevity of this "Nutcracker" to both its beginnings - Albano hewed closely the E.T.A. Hoffmann written work, maintaining the sense of classicism - and how it has evolved.

"He's never stopped reinventing it. Every year, he adds new things," she says.

Albano has new ideas about, say, doing something different with the costumes or adding more people to the Arabian chorus, she says. Last year, the production brought in a new tree that grew to the equivalent of a four-story building. It was created by Leo Meyer, who owns Atlas Scenic Studios in Bridgeport and has done a great deal of work for Broadway.

The cast size has expanded over the years, too, now numbering more than 100, with two dozen professionals. It's a group from here and aboard; this year's lead dancers include Ritsuko Sato from Japan, Eric Carnes from Newington, and Marcello Algeri from Italy.

Albano, at age 73, continues to play the role of Drosselmeyer each year.

It's been a life in ballet for Albano. Growing up in New London, he studied with Maximilian and Margarita Froman, sibling dancers who performed with the Diaghilev Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and emigrated from Russia here.

"That's how I learned great partnering," Albano says.

He also talks about the importance of his time studying at Connecticut College's summer program in modern dance.

"I was up there in the children's classes where they were experimenting on kids' programs with Limon, Graham, and the pioneers ..." he says.

All these decades later, Albano remains devoted to dance. As noted, he still performs the role of Drosselmeyer, and he continues to teach, direct and choreograph ballets for the Albano Ballet Company.

"I'm telling you, I don't know where he gets that energy," Frederick says. "He's got that drive - he's always had that, and that stick-to-itiveness. When he starts to have a problem with something, he'll stay on it until he gets it right. He never throws in the towel. He's just not that type of a person."

Joseph Albano, in an early costume for Drosselmeyer, 1962.
Submitted photo Joseph Albano, in an early costume for Drosselmeyer, 1962.
Joseph Albano and Julia Frederick perform with a young dancer in a recent “Nutcracker” performance.
Submitted photo Joseph Albano and Julia Frederick perform with a young dancer in a recent “Nutcracker” performance.

IF YOU GO

What: Albano Ballet's "Nutcracker"

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena

Tickets: $18-$33

Contact: mohegansun.com, ticketmaster.com, 1-800-745-3000

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