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Dancing Into the Holidays

 Dance Augusta’s The Nutcracker will celebrate its 40th year this month.

Held the weekend after Thanksgiving, The Nutcracker is a tradition that kicks off the holiday season for me and many other Augustans. My children are now at the age where many of their friends who take ballet are in the production, which makes it even more fun to watch. I also became privy to some “insider” information about what goes into this fine performance each year. Always so beautiful, it surely doesn’t happen overnight. Planning and practicing for the production is like a fine-tuned piano. Read on to learn more about what goes into this top-notch ballet.

The Production

The Nutcracker began performances in Augusta in 1971 by Ron Colton and his good friend and colleague, Robert Barnett, the artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet. The two-act ballet is based on the concept of George Balanchine, the legendary director of the NYC Ballet, according to Bon Ellis, business manager of Dance Augusta and Augusta Ballet School.

In 1953, both Barnett and Colton were members of Balanchine’s company when the ballet was originally choreographed. “The Coltons have produced The Nutcracker every year since (40 years) in collaboration with students from the Augusta Ballet School,” says Ellis.

There are 117 parts in the production, 48 adult and 69 children. Some of the adults have more than one part, so there are more roles than people covering them. The children usually have one part, with the exception of the Party Children who also act as Pages in the second act. A student can begin participating in The Nutcracker when they are 8 years old and usually start off as Toy Soldiers or Angels.

Amy Markwalter, an Augusta mother of three daughters, has experienced the ballet through two of her girls’ eyes. “Iris (11) started her first year in The Nutcracker as a Soldier and so did Aggie (9),” says Amy. “The girls practice, practice, practice, and they love it.”

Zanne Colton, artistic director of Dance Augusta, Ellis and faculty members of the Augusta Ballet School choose children from Grade 1 level and up for parts based on size, age and overall ability for the part. 

After the Auditions

Once chosen, there is an orientation meeting in early October before rehearsals which includes a contract and packet of information on all related events. “Be prepared...bring your checkbook,” advises Markwalter. Everyone warned her about the financial commitment, especially with two girls in the production. There are rehearsal fees, costume fees, makeup fees, donations in honor of dancers, pictures and many forms to fill out.

Elizabeth Campbell, whose daughter Talley participated in the ballet as an Angel for the first time last year, says that at first she found the whole process a bit daunting. “Everything, though, was systematic—we knew what to expect and were sent reminders,” she says. “Dance Augusta has come up with an effective system to handle all aspects of production and it was not as overwhelming as one would think since the events are staggered.” 

Ellis says she advises parents to evaluate  all their time requirements, including any family plans, from the first weekend in October through Thanksgiving before making the commitment. That’s when weekend rehearsals begin and they continue every weekend through Thanksgiving.

A Family Affair

The first meeting is also the time to sign up for volunteer opportunities. “There are two co-chairs for the children,” says Ellis. “Each chair has one year where she is the ‘trainee’ and mostly helps out and the next year where she is in charge.”

The demands on the performers parents are multiple. Each production includes appointed Angel Moms, Soldier Moms, Party Children Moms, plus volunteers to ‘man’ the upstairs dressing rooms for students once they are in the theatre to make sure all hair, makeup and costumes are done and the the students get to the backstage area in time to perform. “There is an assembly line of moms and dads for costumes and makeup,” says Markwalter.

Of course, there are also people in charge of the programs, concessions, the cast party and more. “As a Nutcracker parent, you can get as involved as you want,” says Campbell. “One job I had was to help bring the basket from the dressing room to the backstage door to gather the Angels’ wings as they exited off the stage.” Although not a taxing job, it was a necessary one.

Time To Rehearse

After the orientation meeting, the rehearsals begin. Time commitments vary depending on the role the child has. “Soldiers rehearse Friday afternoon from 4-6 p.m. and Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. for example,” says Ellis. This is outside of the usual ballet class time during the week and dancers are expected to attend every practice. In addition to rehearsals, there are also costume fittings.

Twelve-year-old Chandler Lowe, a 6th grader at Westminster Schools of Augusta, will play Clara, the main character, this year. She has been with the Augusta Ballet School for six and a half years and has danced for nine and a half years total. “I started out as an Angel, then a Soldier, a Party Boy, Fritz (Clara’s younger brother) and now Clara,” she says. 

Usually, but not always, once you move up the line and play Fritz, Clara is the next step. “I love being onstage so this is definitely a lot of fun—it is so exciting,” she says. Chandler practices seven days a week, which amounts to approximately 10-11 hours per week plus the weekend practices. This doesn’t bother Chandler in the least. “I don’t walk,” she says. “I dance.”

Chandler is not the only person from her family involved in The Nutcracker. Her father, Bob, is part of the Party Scene and her mom, Elise, organized the cast party last year. “The Nutcracker is really a family event for everyone involved,” says Ellis.

The Experience of a Lifetime

The positives of being a part of The Nutcracker are numerous. You get to work in a professional dance production with all the fun and excitement it entails, not to mention learning to work as a member of a team, learning to organize and budget time wisely and learning the value of commitment and following through, says to Ellis.

“The whole Nutcracker experience was very beneficial to the girls and our family,” says Markwalter.  “I watched Aggie grow up and become very responsible.” 

Campbell agrees and says that the time commitments must be worthwhile since dancers come back year after year to perform. “It is an experience—especially that first time—that will remain with your child for a lifetime,” she says.

Cammie Jones is an Augusta freelance writer and mother of three.

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