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In the 120 years since its debut at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, “The Nutcracker” has been staged by a host of renowned choreographers on behalf of an equally impressive number of ballet troupes.
Though original reviews were mixed, in the past half-century, librettist Marius Petipa’s magical mystery tour (based on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story) has become a perennial favorite of companies that have used the romantic production to introduce generations of would-be ballerinas to “the dance.”
Count Pamela Hayes Classical Ballet among them. PHCB’s debuted its take on Tchaikovsky’s fanciful ballet in 2000, when the company was still based at the Sheldon High School Performing Arts Center. The company’s 12th annual production opens Friday, Dec. 21, for four performances at its current home: Folsom Lake College’s Harris Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Three Stages).
Though it now presents at a newer, state-of-the-art venue, PHCB is still facing the same-old challenge of preserving the “classic” in “Classical Ballet Theatre,” while communicating the distinctions of its “Nutcracker” from myriad rival stagings.
“There are a zillion of them, but I have tried to make ours more entertaining,” said PHCB Artistic Director Pamela Hayes, who acknowledged that “The Nutcracker” has been historically criticized for a rather uninspired first act. “I became aware when I became more of an observer than a participant that the first act ran long, and could be boring. So now we try to make ours more entertaining and humorous by inserting more comedy to make it funnier than others.”
Though ballet aficionados might not perceive even the original staging of little Clara’s journey to a snowy pine forest, and the magical Land of Sweets (escorted by her Nutcracker Prince) as anything but perfection, Hayes said she’s keenly aware that many of the dads, grandfathers, boyfriends and husbands in the audience may have been cajoled, guilted, threatened, or even blackmailed to attend.
With that in mind, Hayes – a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dance and an alum of the Royal Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, Ballet West and Eugene Ballet – said a great deal of her focus is to offer a “Nutcracker” that’s not only family friendly, but is unabashed family fun for girls and boys, moms and dads, dancers and nondancers, and everyone in between.
“That’s my goal, and – hopefully – what sets us apart from some of the larger companies,” said Hayes.
“From those audience members we’ve heard from – especially those who have been dragged out, as well as disinterested children with short attention spans – we’ve succeeded.”
In addition to injecting more than its fair gaggle of giggles, PHCB’s “Nutcracker” is keen on bringing aboard notable guest artists to perform key roles, or to serve in advisory capacities.
This year, Hayes welcomes Peter O’Brien, whose real life inspired the lauded film (and its subsequent Tony-winning stage adaptation) “Billy Elliot,” about a young boy whose interest in ballet provided an escape from a decidedly working-class British mining town.
Hayes met O’Brien some years ago when both were students at the Royal Academy of Dance.
O’Brien will return to Sacramento in August to work with Hayes and company on PHCB’s full-length production of “Giselle.”
“He’ll be consulting on ‘Giselle’ and teaching a summer workshop, so that’s kind of exciting,” said Hayes.
Joining “The Nutcracker” cast in guest-performer capacities are Michael Onstad as Herr Drosselmeyer, and Georgy Rusanov as the Sugar Plum’s Cavalier.
“We’re lucky to have Michael,” said Hayes. “We’re always grateful when he can do our ‘Nutcracker’ because others would love to have him.”
While having new dancers aboard is energizing, it’s also nice to see former students return to dance, said Hayes, noting that three alums are coming back this year to “slide into roles they’ve done before.”
Among those returning for onstage appearances is PHCB alumna Allyn Ginns, who has danced in the company’s 11 previous “Nutcracker” productions.
“Allyn first danced the role of Clara, back when she was 17,” said Hayes, who mentioned that it’s a special treat for Ginns to return for another “Nutcracker,” reprising her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy, considering how hectic her year has been.
“She’s just back from college – Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In fact, she just passed the New York state bar. She’s quite an amazing young woman.”
In speaking about Ginns and her history with PHCB as a student and performer, Hayes is reminded of another distinction between her company and others.
“One of Allyn’s early dreams as a very young student was to dance the role of Clara,” said Hayes. “Well, she was such a lovely dancer, and even at 17 so petite that she could fit into the Clara costume. So she ended up as my Clara. After she debuted in the role, it became our tradition to feature mature, more accomplished dancers in that part.”
Hayes said her cast’s younger students only perform age-appropriate roles, that is, roles that call for only a level of training one could expect from a student.
“I struggle to keep a promise I made to my studio’s then-students more than a dozen years ago,” said Hayes, “because I’m a perfectionist with a respect for my craft, and what’s onstage has to be beautiful and come up to professional standards – it’s not a ‘recital’ version.”
“We pride ourselves on putting a very-professional product onstage. I want to give the students the experience of what it’s like working with a ballet company one day, and to give them an idea if this is what they want to do.”
In addition to Ginns, other PHCB alums that are returning to the fold for a “Nutcracker” reunion are: Sarah Kosterman (as Clara); Aly Andersen (as one of Drosselmeyer’s dolls and as a Spanish dancer); and Katryn Davis and Marie L’Hermine (as party scene parents).
Along with featuring a mix of fresh faces and experienced alums in creative and performance roles, Hayes said what distinguishes her company’s “Nutcracker” is its continual updating of sets and costumes so that even those who aren’t ballet aficionados have a plethora of eye candy on which to feast.
“We have the new costumes for our snow scene that we had made last year,” said Hayes, who also mentioned there were just-stitched costumes waiting to be unveiled, including those for the dolls in the party scene.
“And this is the first year for our snow sets. Our snow scenes for 2012 are as beautiful as we could possibly create, with white-and-fluffy snow. There should be an audible ‘Wow’ from the audience.”
“Each year it’s a little different,” said Hayes. “I like to keep it fresh.”
Hayes said she believes what also makes the PHCB production stand out is the inclusion of a number of characters that don’t normally get much stage time. Introduced during the company’s first productions (to facilitate costume changes for the then-smaller cast), she kept them even after more dancers were added.
“They were so entertaining, we just left them in there,” she said, noting that her 80-member cast – which includes children as young as 3 – performs in every show. “We’ve even added more older roles this year – more dancers in short tutus. A lot of people don’t feel like they’ve gone to the ballet unless they’ve seen a lot of short tutus.”
Pamela Hayes Classical Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23.
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