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Creating the magic of a holiday tradition

Fort Wayne Ballet presents The Nutcracker

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-11-25


Karen Gibbons-Brown, the executive director of the Fort Wayne Ballet, knows exactly when she started work for this year’s production The Nutcracker — December 9, 2007.

That date was last season’s final performance of the holiday classic, and Gibbons-Brown, as always, was watching carefully from the audience. She gives the dancers notes after every performance — “this line needs to be straighter here, this needs to be a little bit different here, etc.” she says — but for the last show, she’s not thinking about the next night; she’s already thinking about the next year.

“I can’t imagine not having The Nutcracker as a part of my life. It just is,” Gibbons-Brown adds, echoing the sentiments of dancers all around the world. “So, with that, what kind of effects do we want to create for the audience this year? What kind of magic might we add, how can we develop this character within the storyline, not change the story, but give that character more depth in the choreography and throughout the scenes.”

“Magic” is a word that comes up a lot when talking about The Nutcracker, and capturing the fantastical and evocative elements of the ballet is always an important part of the Fort Wayne Ballet’s production, which begins its 2008 run on December 5. “For me, The Nutcracker is one of those magical wonderlands, where you can be truly swept up in the moment and believe that you are Clara, or the Sugarplum Fairy, or a mouse or a soldier,” says Gibbons-Brown.

But creating that on-stage wonderland requires a lot of hard work, and not just the long hours of rehearsals the dancers go through. Gibbons-Brown describes the entire process as a jigsaw puzzle. Because The Nutcracker is in repertoire, every year means costumes have to be refurbished, touched-up, or even redesigned to account for the new dancers in the roles or the new choreography. Sometimes, a different dancer requires a new approach to a scene; during the Arabian sequence for Clara’s trip around the world, the female dancer typically makes her entrance when she’s unrolled out of a rug. This year, Gibbons-Brown says a long, tall dancer plays the part, and they had to come up with a new way of getting her on stage (think basket and snake charmer).

Casting for The Nutcracker takes a lot of time, too. Gibbons-Brown says that if all she had to do everyday, all day, was cast the ballet, it would probably take two weeks. Each year, two dancers are chosen to play the lead role of Clara, with lead dance duties for the performances divided between the two. The dancer who isn’t playing Clara for a particular performance is usually busy with another role.

Clara obviously requires a certain level of skill, and there’s also a height requirement — the character is a child, so the dancer has to have something of a child’s stature. But more importantly, the dancer playing Clara has to bring a certain vibrancy to the part. I try to look at the young people I have available who will be able to bring the magic to the part,” Gibbons-Brown says. “It’s difficult sometimes, because you see them in the halls interacting with each other, and they’re very animated, but you give them something with structure and sometimes that animation goes away a little. So pulling that back out of the young person is sometimes challenging.”

This year, Clara duties are divided between Bethany Fenker and Laken Hoover. It’s actually the second time playing Clara for Fenker. “The first time I did it, I was kind of nervous,” she says. “This year, I’m more confident since I’m familiar with the part.” She’ll also be “graduating” to pointe shoes for the role this year (sort of a rite-of-passage for ballet dancers), which Gibbons-Brown says is yet another piece of the jig saw puzzle when it comes to casting— giving dancers a chance to grow and develop artistically. “Bethany is ready for that challenge this year.”

Laken Hoover is the other dancer taking on the role of Clara, and says so far she’s been too excited to be nervous. “It’s an honor to be chosen for it, because you know you’re a good dancer when you get such a big part,” she says. “You’re just glad you have the chance to do it.”

The Fort Wayne Ballet presents The Nutcracker

Fridays, December 5 and 12 at 8:00 pm
Saturdays, December 6 and 13 at 2:30 pm and 8:00 pm
Sundays, December 7 and 14 at 2:30 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Special performances featuring Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children’s Choir on Friday, December 5 and Saturday, December 6 at 8pm.

Tickets: December 5 and 6 at 8:00pm: Adults $35; Seniors (60+) & Youth (11-18) $30; Children (3-10) $25

All other performances: Adults $25; Seniors (60+) & Youth (11-18) $20; Children (3-10) $15

Meet Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy at Sugar Plum Parties, after each matinee performance. Ask about Sugar Plum Party tickets.

For ticket information, contact Fort Wayne Ballet’s box office at 260-484-9646, Monday through Friday 1pm-6pm or visit online at www.fortwayneballet.org.

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