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Christmas whiff: A custom 'Nutcracker’ scent will infuse the Academy of Music lobby

The beloved holiday favorite will offer treats for the nose, thanks to the work of an olfactive branding company.

Christmas prep underway Wednesday at the Academy of Music, where a custom "Nutcracker" scent will greet patrons of the Pennsylvania Ballet's holiday classic, opening Friday.
Christmas prep underway Wednesday at the Academy of Music, where a custom "Nutcracker" scent will greet patrons of the Pennsylvania Ballet's holiday classic, opening Friday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Back in the far day, as legend has it, the owners of the Family Theater in Forest City, way north of Allentown, soaked some wads of cotton in very pungent rosewater, set them in front of a bank of fans, and let the crowds in to sniff at a newly bescented newsreel of the Rose Bowl.

It was just like being in Pasadena, if you squinted.

From such modest beginnings, smell-enhanced performance was born. It developed slowly.

Walt Disney and John Waters toyed with it. Various systems with cute effluvial names – Smell-o-Vision, Odorama, AromaRama – have come and gone.

But now, the Pennsylvania Ballet has decided to employ a very sophisticated variant. When The Nutcracker, jewel of the holidays, opens Friday night at the Academy of Music, audience members young and old will be greeted with the ballet’s scent, its odor, its powerful aromatic identity as they enter the lobby.

Thanks to the alchemical nose of Dawn Goldworm, co-founder of 12.29, a fragrance marketing outfit – or, as she terms it, an “olfactive branding company” – the lobby fragrance will evoke the spirit of The Nutcracker, and not just any Nutcracker, but the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Goldworm, a former dancer and a professional “nose” – she earned her chops from stints at Coty and Avon – said ballet has a distinct smell, but the fragrance her firm has created for The Nutcracker is something different. It is also different from the scent of the Pennsylvania Ballet itself.

“I think if we were going to brand the Pennsylvania Ballet, it would be a different scent,” she said.

In other words, this is a highly performance-specific fragrance, although it will be largely confined to the lobby of the Academy. No scratch-and-sniff strips will be distributed to audience members. No wads of rosewater-drenched cotton balls will be pressed into sweaty little palms. The smell will just be.

‘Everything childhood smells like’

The Nutcracker is the perfect vehicle,” said Goldworm. “Act Two in particular, with the Sugarplum Fairy, is full of scent – candy, marzipan, sugar, spice, coffee, candy canes, icing – everything childhood smells like.”

Hints of all of these went in to concocting the oils for the unique scent of The Nutcracker.

Ballet board member Rajesh Aggarwal was instrumental in bringing Goldworm and the ballet together.

“I’m just so excited to see what will happen when they walk into the academy,” Aggarwal said, imagining the upcoming performances. “It could open up a completely new area for how we get people reengaged with the ballet.”

“There might be other opportunities,” he continued. “What else can we do with scents in the ballet? It can be really powerful.”

One day this week, David Martinez, an operations manager for 12.29, set up the nebulizers that diffuse the scent in the academy lobby. Within moments, the small, black, square machines, about the size of modest dictionaries, had worked to fill the lobby with ... what? What is that smell? Not cinnamon, not nutmeg, not ginger nor pastry nor cream – but somehow suggestive of all. What is the fragrance?

Martinez said the company produced four “scent directions” for the ballet, which chose one.

“It’s sugar and cream, whipped and fluffy,” said Goldworm. “It smells like whipped sugar in the air. … It’s not artificial and sugary and sickening. It smells fluffy and light.”

She said the effect is not “overly cerebral; it’s visceral.”

And it’s aimed primarily at kids, who are particularly receptive to the kind of mnemonic bonding induced by fragrance. After experiencing this scent at a Nutcracker or two, it will be welded in memory for a lifetime. At least that’s the idea.

“The second they walk through those doors, they will remember,” said Goldworm.

“We want to extend the magic,” said Jonathan Stiles, the ballet’s associate director of marketing, noting that there will be no visible source of the scent when the Academy opens its doors Friday evening. The scent machines are tucked away out of sight. The fragrance will waft through the air, produced by nebulizing action on natural oils.

The effort will continue through this year’s Nutcracker season, Stiles said, and then the company will discuss what efforts might be explored in the future, if any. (The scent will not be available for purchase.)

“It’s all focused on the child,” said Goldworm, “not on the parents.”