For 16 days in December, Charlotte Ballet’s Nutcracker takes center stage in uptown. While it’s a known classic, the audience rarely gets to see the true wonder that takes place before the curtain rises.
by Sharon Smith | photographs by Richard Israel
Not a creature is stirring — not even a Mouse King as the lights go down in Belk Theater. It’s all quiet, until that familiar music starts and we see the beginnings of a party with family and friends on a snowy Christmas Eve.
The stage is set for young Clara Stahlbaum to take the audience through a series of enchanted dreams with toy soldiers, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Nutcracker Prince, who bravely battles and defeats the Mouse King and his army.
The timeless classic, composed by Tchaikovsky in 1891, is the most performed ballet of the modern era. Yet, for the 160 dancers who are part of Charlotte Ballet’s presentation this year, there’s a newness each night.
“Being in a theater as large as the Belk always gives me goose bumps,” says James Kopecky, a veteran Charlotte Ballet dancer now in his ninth season. He’s played nearly every role in too many productions to count, he adds jokingly.
While little changes are made to the show each year, it’s the music that keeps it fresh for this dancer. “Tchaikovsky’s music is iconic,” Kopecky says. ”I’ve learned to listen to the complexities and overlays he put in the music. While I’m dancing, it invigorates the steps into something new for me.”
There are a lot of new faces, too. Charlotte Ballet has eight new dancers following a slew of retirements from seasoned veterans. The Belk crowd is a new audience in a new city for several of them.
“I’ve been doing the same choreography for many years, so learning a new version is exciting,” Samantha Riester says about this Nutcracker choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. “I’m eager to hear the full orchestration. Plus, being in a more traditional version … adds a classic and timeless touch that I’m loving.”
There are 20 professional dancers in the company. As soon as they wrapped on the fall presentation of Breaking Boundaries, it was on to Nutcracker with rehearsals starting the first week of November, 9-to-5, five days a week. The cast includes 113 academy students (ages 9-18) and 26 dancers from the pre-professional division.
Sophie Mercure directs the Academy cast, managing schedules and leading rehearsals. The Academy’s schedule is quite different based on the need to accommodate students. Auditions take place before Labor Day, and rehearsals start by mid-September, weekends only.
Mercure says the students learn a great sense of teamwork and dependability being part of a professional production. And that seven-day workweek isn’t lost on her. “I feel an immense amount of pride in the way these kids dedicate their efforts, their time and love of dance to this production.”
This year, the lead role of Clara is played by three dancers, all of whom previously played Clara’s Friends. Mercure says by splitting the role, the dancers are well-rested and have a healthy experience. “At our first Clara rehearsal together, all three girls were a quick study after spending last year watching and learning on the side for fun.”
There are so many moving parts, literally and figuratively. With five major scene changes, a live orchestra, a production and costume team constantly moving, and dozens of cue calls — there’s always adrenaline backstage.
Artistic Director Alejandro Cerrudo says the ballet taps into something enduring, too — a “reminder that within each of us lies the capacity to dream, to create and to find solace in the transformative power of art.”
Sometimes when something is so familiar, we forget just how special it is. Don’t let that be the case with Nutcracker. Delight in the spectacle, the tradition and the knowledge that this kind of magic doesn’t just happen.
Take it from a seasoned veteran — the snow scene still gets Kopecky everytime. SP
Nutcracker by the numbers:
23 Scenic backdrops
1 Flying Balloon Boat
143 Hand Props
378 Lighting Fixtures
160 Lighting Cues
James Kopecky, second row left, as Herr Drosselmeyer, is in his ninth season with Charlotte Ballet.