(Ballet Virginia’s “Nutcracker” performance by professional dancers.)
By Jeff Maisey
In retail, many programs exist to “Buy Local” or “Shop Local During the Holidays.”
These promotional efforts advocate for supporting locally owned and operated business competing with big box, national chains.
Such an approach might be of interest this holiday season as five different, competing versions of “The Nutcracker” are presented across Hampton Roads.
While three “Nutcracker” performances are from nationally touring companies, two are based in Hampton Roads — Virginia Regional Ballet in Williamsburg and Norfolk-based Ballet Virginia.
Ballet Virginia will pair with Symphonicity to present its “Nutcracker” December 15-17 at Sandler Center for the Arts. Virginia Regional Ballet teams with Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra December 16-17 at Ferguson Center for the Arts.
“The Nutcracker” is one of the most beloved performing arts experiences of the holiday season. Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1892 to compose music for a two-act classical ballet. Tchaikovsky selected choreographer Marius Petipa to complete the project, an adaptation of the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
Over the years various productions of “The Nutcracker” have thrilled audiences of all ages. Many modern choreographers have made slight changes to keep the annual performance fresh.
“Every professional ballet company will do slightly different versions,” said Ballet Virginia co-artistic director/choreographer/instructor, Janina Michalski. “We all use the same music. We have taken some of the original music from the first act and used in our second act just to carry the story through. Every company has different (stage) sets and storylines, and that makes it fun and interesting.
“Like our Battle scene,” Michalski continued. “We baby mice and then our rats come through; mechanical mice that chase Clair around a little bit. We’ve been told our production is charming.”
Both Ballet Virginia and Virginia Regional Ballet offer educational classes for all ages and levels. They also employee a staff that doubles as instructors and professional dancers.
Ballet Virginia’s professional company will be featured in its presentation of “The Nutcracker” with a cast of over 100 dancers. This December marks the 16th year they’ve presented the holiday season ballet.
Professional ballet companies generally attribute 40% of their annual sales revenue to performances of “The Nutcracker.”
“At the point in our growth, I’d say it’s more like 60% for us,” said Ballet Janina Michalski. “It’s something almost everybody’s heard of from the time that they were young. There are so many television versions of it too.”
Michalski credits the family-friendly version of Ballet Virginia’s version for its popularity as well.
“We have quite a few children in it and have dogs in the first act,” she said. “Of course, if you put animals in there you’re going to win.”
The cast of “The Nutcracker” was derived from 200 auditioning dancers, a record level for a Ballet Virginia production.
“For the professional company we’ve been bombarded with interest from dancers from around the country as well as a few from outside the country,” said Michalski.
Ballet Virginia works with Virginia Scenic for its set designs in a collaborative effort. The costumes are done in-house, and in both case are changed slightly from year to year.
In addition to Michalski, co-artistic director Suzanne Lownbury and company artistic director/modern and ballet instructor Lydia Roberts-Coco are the creative forces that pull everything together.
“The Nutcracker” is a major ballet to produce for a small, independent dance company. Rehearsals begin, for example, in late September. Ballet Virginia’s headquarters on 21st Street in Norfolk has a full-size stage so that when its dancers perform at Sandler Center they’re already comfortable and familiar with the performance space, props, and lighting. The result is magical for performers and local audiences.
“I think there’s something really special about our production,” said Michalski.