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The tough road through the “Land of Sweets”

Fort Wayne Ballet’s The Nutcracker kicks off the holiday season

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-11-28


For ballet dancers, The Nutcracker is packed with plenty of great parts, but it’s Clara, the young girl who travels through the “Land of Sweets” in the classic holiday ballet, who takes center stage. I’m told by one dancer that any girl who really “gets into” ballet dreams of playing Clara someday.

“Well, the joke around here is that I never got to play Clara during my career,” says Karen Gibbons-Brown, artistic director of the Fort Wayne Ballet, as she prepares for the 2005 edition of The Nutcracker. Named “One of the Five Nutcrackers to See” by the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, the Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is always a huge audience favorite during the holiday season.

Gibbons-Brown may never have played Clara, but she’s performed some aspect of the famous seasonal ballet countless times. “I’ve done Sugar Plum Fairy over 500 times,” she says. “So, back that up with parts like the snowflakes and flowers and maybe even a child’s part… My longest season of The Nutcracker was 52 performances in one year.”

The Nutcracker was the first ballet to have children in the main parts, so the lead roles of Clara and Fritz (and sometimes the Nutcracker Prince) are always played by children. A lot of the young dancers at the Fort Wayne Ballet may dream of playing Clara one day, but they also know that being the “star” means a lot of responsibility. It’s a taxing role, even if the dancers are accustomed to the long hours of rehearsals that typically go into a Fort Wayne Ballet production. Each year, two dancers are chosen to play Clara. There are 12 full performances of the Fort Wayne Ballet’s The Nutcracker (not counting the abbreviated afternoon performances for schools), with lead dance duties for the full performances divided six each between the two Claras. The dancer who isn’t playing Clara for a particular performance is usually busy with another role.

“I’ve always wanted to be Clara, and I was really excited when I found out I got the part,” says Christina Presti, 13, who (along with Kerry Coughlin) plays Clara this year. “All my friends are really excited for me, too.”

Presti admits to feeling a little overwhelmed once rehearsals started. “Once I started in rehearsals, I got kind of nervous because of all the different parts I needed to learn,” she says.

Of course, playing Clara isn’t without its rewards, including elevation to minor celebrity status by the youngest aspiring dancers in the audience, and even a few autograph seekers. “It was so much fun,” says Felicity Nicholson, one of the Claras in the 2003 production, who plays a flower this year. “The dancing was hard, and learning everything so quickly was hard, but the best part was seeing all the little girls afterwards.”

A number of factors go into casting Clara. Gibbons-Brown says she looks for a combination of the dancer’s size, skill level, and the ability to turn in a good performance show after show. “It’s difficult. This is a lot of performing,” Gibbons-Brown explains. “Consistency for 12 performances may not be a part of their skill level yet.”

“We always alter the choreography somewhat, not necessarily to show off the dancer’s specific gifts, but to challenge them and take them to the next level sometimes,” Gibbons-Brown adds. By the time a dancer is around the right age to play Clara, Gibbons-Brown says she has a pretty good idea of how they will respond to certain challenges.

Finally… “Believe it or not, one of the requirements is that they have to have hair that can go into those ringlets,” Gibbons-Brown says. “Those are not wigs. Wigs are cumbersome for children, they fall off on stage, you lose the illusion. Just like ballet dancers have to be able to put their hair up in buns, Clara has to put her hair in curls.”

Why? Gibbons-Brown explains that part of the reason why is historical — when The Nutcracker was first staged, children wore ringlets. Furthermore, it helps distinguish Clara on stage from the other dancers. “Ballet dancers wear their hair up in those ‘peeled-onion dos,’ tightly to their head, so it doesn’t get in their face when they turn. That way, in class, you’re allowed to see the alignment of the spine and body that’s so important. But this is a ballet with the lead parts done by children, and what more indicates a child in that specific time-period when the ballet was first staged than that hair-do, and the length, as opposed to pulling it back off your face as a woman?”

This will be Gibbons-Brown’s seventh production of The Nutcracker in Fort Wayne. I have to ask: does even a professional dancer ever think, “oh, no. Not this again…”

Gibbons-Brown laughs it off. For one, she says she never gets tired of the music. Plus, with new dancers in the roles each year, the choreography changes a little every time. There’s also something about being on stage, in front of an audience, that makes the performance thrilling. “It’s a live performance. I tell the dancers, ‘if you want it the same, you go to the movies, but this is something new’,” says Gibbons-Brown. “Every single time you see it, you will never see the same thing again. It takes on a new dynamic every single time. How could it be boring?”

This year, the Fort Wayne Ballet is already preparing for the 2006 production of The Nutcracker. 2006 will mark the Fort Wayne Ballet’s 50th anniversary, and to commemorate the occasion is inviting members of the community to design their own version of the Nutcracker Prince. Prizes will be awarded in four categories: Traditional, Creative, Characters and Coloring Contest for children 10 and under.

The winning design from the Traditional Category will be custom-built and carried by Clara during the 2006 performance of The Nutcracker. Nutcracker outlines can be found online at www.fortwayneballet.org, and at Fort Wayne Ballet Studios. Please see the website for all rules and regulations or call 260.484.9646.

The Nutcracker
Friday December 2 – Sunday December 11, 2005
Arts United Center, 303 E. Main Street.
8:00 PM on Dec. 2, 3, 9 & 10 and 2:30 on December 3, 4, 10 & 11.
Tickets are priced by age and run from $15.00 - $35.00. Evening performances on the first weekend are performed with the Philharmonic. For ticket information call (260) 484.9646, after Nov. 28 call 422-4226.

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