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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cracking Nuts

Act II of GDT's Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of Joe Tecza
When I was a little dancer, being in The Nutcracker was the highlight of my year. Every June, I'd start counting down the weeks until auditions. Once cast lists were announced, I wanted to rehearse every day, all day. I loved the work of learning choreography, becoming a character and making the steps look right.
   One year, when I was about 12 or 13, I remember waiting in the wings for my part, watching the sugar plum fairy. She wasn't doing much, just standing there in layers of stiff pale tulle and a tiara that glittered under the stage lights, arms floating by her sides. She exuded an other-worldly charisma and elegance that convinced me there was no other life for me.
    Long story short, there was another life in store for me.
   But that's a tale for another day.

   Given the important role Nutcracker played in my early ballet years, it's unsurprising that it became the first full length ballet I directed after launching my own little school and subsequent company. I've never felt much confidence in myself as a leader but living in a place with very little dance culture has forced me to become one. If I want a ballet to happen---I have to direct and choreograph it!
    I'd been toying with the idea of doing a Nutcracker for a couple of years. After trying and failing to recruit enough professional dancers for a contemporary ballet performance last year, I changed gears and started thinking more seriously about Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet. Last summer, I got in touch with the staff of the David A. Howe Public Library, where I'd performed with The Valley Theatre earlier in the year, to see if their auditorium would be a potential venue. I was surprised and thrilled when they offered to sponsor the production as an official library event. I was also panic-stricken--now I had no excuse not to go ahead with the show. The Nutcracker is a notoriously big undertaking for a first ballet. While many dance companies survive off the show's profits, the sets and costumes are traditionally elaborate and expensive. The large number of dancers, many of them children, required also makes casting tricky.
Party Scene. Photo courtesy of Joe Tecza. 

    We stayed on budget by borrowing a lot of costumes (thank you, Urban Impact Foundation and Steps Dance Studio!), and getting creative with our sets. The auditorium itself is very limited in terms of what types of sets can be accommodated--there's no fly space, for example--so instead of fancy backdrops we used furniture, handmade portable set pieces, and lighting to fill things out. In the future, I'd like to invest a little more in nicer costumes, particularly for the party scene and the flowers, but overall I thought we did very well with the limited resources at our disposal.
   Believe it or not, the hardest part about getting the production off the ground was finding dancers! Most productions have a cast of 100 dancers or more. Genesee Dance Theatre had just about thirty.
Thirty is not a lot. Thirty is especially not a lot when you consider that this number includes, a half a dozen non-dancing performers who played parents in the party scene, and about twenty children. While I did manage to scrape up enough dancers to put on the show (after five separate auditions), it meant cutting out some parts of the ballet. I opted out of doing a full snow scene, due to our inability to actually use fake snow and our very small number of company members available to create a corps de ballet of snowflakes.
     We ended up cutting two of the Act II "variations"--the Arabian dance and the Spanish dance. I just didn't have enough company members to go around! And, while, my good friend Lina Kent flew down from NYC to guest as the Sugar Plum Fairy, I just didn't have the budget for a cavalier. She danced the famous Sugar Plum Fairy solo beautifully and I hope we're able to stage the full pas de deux in future years.
   Production week itself was one of the most stressful periods of my life. We had a fairly sporadic rehearsal period leading up to the show thanks to the Thanksgiving holidays and our first stage rehearsal was, to put it kindly, a train wreck. Missed cues, forgotten choreography, disappearing props, sloppy dancing. I feel no guilt in saying that publicly because I think the cast will agree with me! That disaster of a rehearsal made the next week all the more rewarding. The dancers stepped up their game, applied the notes they were given, and worked hard to make the show the best it could possibly be. By the time we opened  to a completely full house that Friday, our Nutcracker was something I could feel proud of.

   The energy and excitement of the audience during both packed shows was contagious. We actually had to turn people away at the door--something that's never happened at any other show I've directed or choreographed. The highlight of the weekend for me was seeing the faces on the kids in the audience as we came out to greet them (in our tutus and tiaras). One adult members of the audience said, "I've always wanted to see a Nutcracker and this was magical" which is about the greatest thing I could have heard.
    Aside from the fun of dancing in the show (Trepak and Snow Queen), this undertaking was worthwhile if only for the immense confidence it's given me. I used to feel uncomfortable with my own choreographic skills and scared to death of being at the helm of a single show, let alone an entire company.
     With such a successful first show in the books, I feel motivated to see what other possibilities are on the horizon for this new company.
Nutcracker 2015, anyone?

How about that crushed velvet, eh?