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The Nutcracker 2012

Karen Gibbons-Browns talks changes and the importance of being prepared

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


“The Show Must Go On” is the most oft-repeated maxims of show business. Performers are exhorted to maintain the appearance of control and professionalism through any kind of backstage or onstage chaos — illness, missed cues, misplaced props, broken strings, wardrobe malfunctions… whatever goes wrong, stay focused and stay in character.

And it’s even true in the seemingly rarified world of ballet. “Of course it happens,” says Karen Gibbons-Brown, Artistic Director of the Fort Wayne Ballet. “It’s live theater. Something will go wrong. You just have to be prepared.”

“I’ve never gone through a Nutcracker with the original cast making it through the whole run of shows. Ever. Even as a dancer. It just doesn’t happen.”

Don’t get the wrong impression: Gibbons-Brown runs a tight ship at the Fort Wayne Ballet, and everyone involved in the organization’s traditional holiday production of The Nutcracker — from the principal dancers to the cast to the extras to the musicians to the technical crew — is a professional who knows what they are doing.

That said, a spectacle as big as The Nutcracker has a lot of (ahem) moving parts (you don’t get recognized in The Wall Street Journal by going small). And when that many elements need to come together… well, things happen. We’re not talking anything life- threatening (though once, long before Gibbons-Brown tenure, one of the mice fell into the orchestra pit), but injuries, illness, and other problems occur.

There was the time, for instance, when the entire cast of soldiers came down with the flu, one after the other. “Another year, we had a Sugar Plum Fairy who wasn’t feeling well,” Gibbons-Brown says. “She did the first act, came out for the beginning of Act II, and got sick. Lucia (Rogers, one of Fort Wayne Ballet’s principal dancers) was standing in the wings in her costume, ready to go, and just walked out and did the grand pas de deux with the other dancer’s partner. They hadn’t done it before, but they pulled it off.”

Rogers came to the rescue yet another time, again for a dancer who was taken ill at the last minute. Once more, Rogers was dressed as the Sugarplum Fairy, when one of the dancers playing a sheep got sick back stage. “None of the other kids knew that part,” Gibbons-Brown says. “Lucia put on the sheep costume, did the sheep, and then later went back out as the Sugarplum Fairy.”

“And that’s one of those great stories for some of the younger people with us to hear,” Gibbons-Brown continues. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re playing, you should be able to do many of these parts at some point, and be willing to help the team.”

The Fort Wayne Ballet “double casts” The Nutcracker — Gibbons-Brown refers to the casts as “peanut/almond,” like M&Ms. When she first took the job, Gibbons-Brown said the two casts were labeled “Gold” and “Silver,” which lead to associations of a ranking system with first and second place. “In my world, all M&Ms are equal, so we’re peanuts and almonds, because they’re all good.” (and if there’s a third cast, they’re “peanut butter”).

In addition to the two casts, many of the principal roles in The Nutcracker have understudies who usually dance another role in the production. “You don’t have someone understudy a part that they’re not prepared to do,” explains Gibbons-Brown. “We wouldn’t have a Level Two student understudy for the Sugarplum Fairy, for example. We double cast it, so if someone gets sick or injured, our first option is always a dancer from the other group. But sometimes the understudies go on, so that’s always interesting. Sometimes they really step up and make strides, and that’s really nice to see.”

The 2012 edition of The Nutcracker features Taylor Ebert and Sophie Parrent in the prized role of Clara. HannahLeah Oeding and Lucia Rogers play the Sugar Plum Fairy, with David Ingram and Preston Swovelin as the Cavalier. Swovelin is a special guest for the year’s performance of The Nutcracker, a freelance performer and choreographer who has spent the past three seasons with the Nevada Ballet Theater and has recently worked with Cirque Du Soliel.

Talbot Rue takes on the role of the Nutcracker Prince for the second year in a row. “His role has come in to some maturity this year,” Gibbons-Brown says. “It’s always nice when we can grow the dancer and the role with the dancer or the dancer with the role. That’s part of the process that I love.”

Gibbons-Brown told us previously that plans for the next season of The Nutcracker usually begin the day after the current run’s final show. But last year, as 2011’s production wound up, they started looking even further into the future, to 2013. Many of the sets for The Nutcracker — sets which the Fort Wayne Ballet has used for years — were beginning to show a little wear and tear. The plan is to retire the backdrops and set pieces at the end of this year’s run. “They’ve been great for us, but they’ve exceeded the expected lifespan of a show that hangs every year, so we’ve been lucky,” Gibbons-Brown says. “This is just fore-planning. It’s nice to be able to do it when not in ‘crisis mode’.”

Also returning — but definitely not for the last time — is “the Muttcracker,” Fort Wayne Ballet’s collaboration with Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control. For the past two seasons. Fort Wayne Ballet has incorporated adoption-eligible dogs in the Act I Party Scene, providing space in the lobby for FWACC to allow visits with the canine stars during intermission. Families interested in adoption can begin the process right there. All 28 of the dogs featured in the performances have found a home, plus other animals were adopted from the FWACC.

Several dance companies around the nation took notice and now offer their version of “the Muttcracker” in their own communities. “We’re excited that other dance companies have begun to incorporate this into their own Nutcracker productions,” says Gibbons-Brown. “Our hope is that this project expands nationally, and I’ve been more than happy to share our experiences and successes with directors around the country.”

As always, the 2012 version of The Nutcracker continues its longtime collaboration with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir for three weekend performances November 30 and December 1.

Additionally, Act II of The Nutcracker will be performed at special In-Theatre performances, providing area schools, home school families and local social agencies an opportunity to experience the art of dance at reduced cost. The performances are supplemented by visits with the dancers who present docent materials and provide the students and visitors a Q&A about everything from costumes to the dance itself. The four In-Theatre performances of Act II bring the total number of performance to 13 in a 10 day period.

And after the final performance, even as the costumes are being put back in storage and the stage sets are being dismantled, the Fort Wayne Ballet will start looking towards next year.


The Fort Wayne Ballet presents The Nutcracker

Friday, November 30 at 7 PM (with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children’s Choir)
Saturday, December 1 at 2:30 PM (with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children’s Choir)
Saturday, December 1 at 8 PM (with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children’s Choir)

Sunday, December 2 at 2:30 PM
Tuesday, December 4 at 7 PM
Friday, December 7 at 8 PM
Saturday, December 8 at 2:30 PM
Saturday, December 8 at 8 PM
Sunday, December 9 at 2:30 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Group and individual performance ticket information is available by calling the Arts United Center box office at (260) 422-4226.

For more information on the Fort Wayne Ballet, visit fortwayneballet.org

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