That’s definitely true in the Miami Valley where the Dayton Ballet has presented a full production of the Christmas classic since 1993.
The popular tradition came to an abrupt end last year when the world pandemic forced theaters to close. The happy news is that, with some necessary adjustments, “The Nutcracker” will be back on stage at the Schuster Center this season. Performances, including a sensory-friendly version, are scheduled for Friday, Dec. 10 through Sunday, Dec. 19 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center.
Accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Neal Gittleman, Tchaikovsky’s iconic music will once again help tell the story of Little Clara, the Nutcracker Prince (or Princess), the Mouse King, Mother Ginger, the beloved holiday party, the beautiful snow forest, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Land of Sweets.
In addition to the 19 professional dancers from the Dayton Ballet, “The Nutcracker” will include a cast of 29 children from the Miami Valley.
It’s not just audience members who are excited; the dancers are thrilled to be back on stage and “feeling normal” as well. “It was very different last year, for sure, it felt empty,’ says artistic director and choreographer Karen Russo Burke who’s been involved with a production of “The Nutcracker” since she was five years old. “It’s part of your being, it’s way more than the ballet, it’s tradition. I see grandparents bringing grandchildren.”
Burke and her staff faced plenty of challenges this time around. The Dayton production includes two casts and typically involves more than 100 children. “We usually start auditioning in early September because it takes that long to get all of the information we need, to get sizes adjusted for our costume people,” explains Burke. " But due to the pandemic at that time the vaccines were only available for those 12 and up.”
As a result, the only young people eligible to audition for this year’s production had to be 12-16 years of age with at least one vaccination. ”We had to take into consideration the crew’s health and the orchestra’s, so we had to take out the mice, lambs, soldiers, and others,” explains Burke. “There’s just as much dancing; the story, costumes and sets are the same but we had to make adjustments.”
One of those who was disappointed was Anna Williams of Tipp City who made the Junior Company at Dayton Ballet this year, but missed the tryout vaccine requirement by three weeks.
“Truthfully, she and her fellow 11-year-old friends were devastated and cried for a few days,” says Anna’s mother, Andrea, adding that their family’s holiday traditions have centered around “The Nutcracker” since Anna first tried out in 2018 and found her “people.”
Though this year is disappointing, Andrea says Anna rebounded quickly and is now happy the community can see “The Nutcracker“ at all. “As a family very supportive of the arts, it was so hard watching the lights dim for so long,” Andrea concludes. " So while we are sad to not be backstage, we will support this year from the seats.”
Although Burke typically auditions professional dancers for the company in Dayton and Chicago, that too had to be adjusted this time. “This year, everyone auditioned by DVDs and online videos,” she says. " Our only direct communication was on Zoom. But it all worked out with new dancers coming from California, Chicago, Austin, Long Island.”
By the time ballet dancers have reached age 20, Burke says, they’re certain to have been in many productions of “The Nutcracker” so the music is already “in their bodies.” But the choreography varies with each production and half of the current Dayton company is dancing here for the first time. “It isn’t just the dancers we hired this year, but last year as well,” explains Burke. “And because of the pandemic, I’m insisting that everybody knows all of the roles.”
The Dayton Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is family-friendly with a 45-minute first act and a 40- minute second act. Burke suggests that seven is a good age to begin bringing children to the ballet and “The Nutcracker” is a good place to start. “Some kids are captivated and do not move,” she observes. “But if they only sit through the first act, they’ll have seen a lot of the excitement --they’ll meet the Nutcracker, the Rat King, watch the tree grow and see the Land of Snow.”
One dancer who is definitely excited about this year’s production is 15-year-old Mollie Juniewicz who started her “Nutcracker” career as a lamb when she was six years old and will play the leading role of Clara. Over the years she has also portrayed a soldier, a rat, an attendant, a party girl, a gingerbread cookie and Fritz. “I think it’s funny that I played Clara’s little brother a few years ago and, now, get to play Clara,” says the Kettering dancer who attends Chaminade-Julienne.
“I was devastated when I heard that because of COVID there would be no “Nutcracker” last year,” says Mollie. “I’ve done it for so long and it brings so much joy to so many people. I was heartbroken but I remained hopeful that we would be able to perform this year.”
She considers being Clara an honor and credits the Dayton Ballet School for preparing her for the role. ”I remember when I was a lamb and, later, as a soldier, I really looked up to the dancers who played Clara and thought how incredible it would be to, someday, have the chance to perform that role,” she says. It’s especially exciting and challenging this year, she says, because the part is being performed en pointe, the dance position in which the body is balanced on the extreme tip of the toe. All of the girls in the party scene are also dancing en pointe because they are older and more experienced dancers.
Mollie says dancing isn’t just about performances. “It’s about building friendships that will last a lifetime. My favorite part about performing in ‘The Nutcracker’ is being part of people’s holiday tradition.”
HOW TO GO:
What: Dayton Ballet’s presentation of “The Nutcracker” accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
When: Friday, Dec. 10 through Sunday, Dec. 19. Performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. A sensory-friendly performance will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 17 designed especially for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, sensory sensitivities or other special needs. Both acts of “The Nutcracker’' are presented and theater rules are relaxed.
Tickets: $19-$76, available at the box office by calling (937) 228-3630 or online at www.dayton performing arts.org. Senior, teacher and student discounts are available at the box office.
- Behind the Ballet - After each performance, ticket holders are invited free of charge to “Behind the Ballet,” a Q&A with Burke and professional dancers.
- Nutcracker Boutique - Open before each performance and during intermissions, features hundreds of holiday nutcrackers of all sizes, painted pointe shoes, and ballet-themed items for sale.
- Graeter’s Sweet Shoppe - Ice cream and candies available for purchase at each performance.
- Muttcracker will once again bring dogs to the Schuster that are available for fostering or adoption. 4 Paws for Ability is looking for those willing to foster service dogs. The organization will be at the Wintergarden on Saturday, Dec. 11 and Sunday and Dec. 12 matinees. Luv4K9′s will offer dogs for adoption and will be in the Wintergarden for the 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Dec. 18.
- Rike’s Holiday Windows in the Wintergarden - A holiday tradition for countless Dayton families since the elves first appeared in the windows of Rike’s Department Store in the 1940s.
- Vaccination and Testing – no longer required
- Masks – Required for all patrons over the age of 6 during the entire visit while attending a DPAA performance or event. Mask must cover both nose and mouth.