Portland Opera Puccini

Preview: Eugene Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”

Every year, the holiday classic provides aspiring young dancers from the Willamette Valley to Alaska with their first experience of the world of professional ballet.

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Eugene Ballet's "Nutcracker" provides young dancers from the Eugene Ballet Academy with their first experience of auditioning for roles and performing on a company stage. Photo by Antonio Anacan.
Eugene Ballet’s “Nutcracker” provides young dancers from the Eugene Ballet Academy with their first experience of auditioning for roles and performing on a company stage. Photo by Antonio Anacan.

“The Nutcracker” — with its whirling snowflakes, battling mice, and Land of Sweets — is a beloved tradition of the holiday season for many. But this ballet, perhaps more than any other, also helps pass skills from dancer to dancer, showing young performers what it takes to create two hours of seamless magic on stage. 

For years, the Eugene Ballet has been sharing Artistic Director Toni Pimble’s whimsical adaptation of “The Nutcracker” with audiences and dancers, both regionally and also much further up the west coast in Alaska.

At the Christmas Eve party, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer entertains the children with magic tricks and mechanical dolls. Photo by Ari Denison.
At the Christmas Eve party, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer entertains the children with magic tricks and mechanical dolls. Photo by Ari Denison.

This year the performances of “The Nutcracker” will take place from December 21-26 at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. But the Eugene Ballet artistic staff and company dancers are fresh off a tour of the ballet in Anchorage, Alaska where they presented “The Nutcracker” with students from the Alaska Dance Theatre performing the children’s roles. 

Eugene Ballet has brought this production to Alaska ten times since 2009, when the Anchorage Concert Association first invited them to perform. For each of these performances, one of the artistic staff travels to Anchorage in the fall to host three days of auditions and initial rehearsals for the local students, some who travel long distances in hopes of being a part of “The Nutcracker.” 

Eugene Company dancers rehearse with the students of the Alaska Dance Theatre, giving them an introduction to the world of professional ballet. Photo by Shona DeVolld.
Eugene Company dancers rehearse with the students of the Alaska Dance Theatre, giving them an introduction to the world of professional ballet. Photo by Shona DeVolld.

Local teachers then rehearse with the students until the Eugene Ballet company travels there during the week of Thanksgiving to do combined rehearsals onstage for spacing and two dress rehearsals. The company and the young Alaskan dancers do one performance before Thanksgiving for local nonprofit organizations and six shows after Thanksgiving for the general public, all accompanied by live music. Brian McWhorter, director of Orchestra NEXT in Eugene, has conducted local Alaskan musicians for these shows since 2012, and, since the pandemic, has also brought Orchestra NEXT’s assistant conductors, Daniel Cho and Rodrigo Gonzalez-Jacob along for the performance.

Eugene Ballet’s production of "The Nutcracker" at the Hult Center is accompanied by live music performed by Orchestra Next. Orchestra director Brian McWhorter also joined Eugene Ballet members for the Alaska performance of "The Nutcracker." Photo by Ari Denison.
Eugene Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” at the Hult Center is accompanied by live music performed by Orchestra Next. Orchestra director Brian McWhorter also joined Eugene Ballet members for the Alaska performance of “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Ari Denison.

“Being a part of Eugene Ballet’s tour to Anchorage as both a dancer and as artistic staff has been magical,” says Suzanne Haag, the company’s resident choreographer. “I think what stands out the most is that we are not just bringing the gift of Toni’s beautiful Nutcracker to another city to enjoy, but that we are giving young students the chance to be a part of a professional, high-level production that they might not otherwise be able to experience.”

You can read about one young Alaskan dancer’s experience of this production here.

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Since 2009, Eugene Ballet has worked with children from the Anchorage Dance Academy, culminating in a special production of "The Nutcracker." Photo by Shona DeVolld.
Since 2009, Eugene Ballet has worked with children from the Alaska Dance Theatre, culminating in a special production of “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Shona DeVolld.

In many ballet companies, “The Nutcracker” is the only annual performance that involves large numbers of young dancers, who learn what it’s like to audition for roles and perform on a company stage. Fall auditions bring giddy excitement each year. Students experience the elation, and disappointment, that comes with casting announcements. Then rehearsals start, and repeat for months in the studios until it’s time for stage rehearsals.

Enjoy a fun, behind-the-scenes peek at the backstage action before a performance of Eugene Ballet’s Nutcracker. Video courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Nearly 150 students from the Eugene Ballet Academy will participate across the six performances in Eugene this year. 

“Some of us who have been with Eugene Ballet for a long time have seen young dancers in both Eugene and Alaska progress from Baby Mice to Party Children to Waltz of the Flowers over the years,” says Haag. ”Ballet is an art form that is passed down from dancer to dancer and it is always thrilling to be a part of a young dancer’s artistic journey.”

For many aspiring young dancers at Eugene Ballet Academy, their roles as baby mice in "The Nutcracker" are their first time being on stage in a ballet. Photo by Antonio Anacan.
For many aspiring young dancers at Eugene Ballet Academy, their roles as baby mice in “The Nutcracker” are their first time being on stage in a ballet. Photo by Antonio Anacan.

Traditions need continual freshening up, too. This year’s performances debut brand new costumes for Waltz of the Flowers and new tutus for Marzipan. Toni Pimble and associate technical director Earendil Biskup have also been hard at work creating a new bed canopy and throne for Clara and the Land of Sweets.

The repetition of rehearsals and hours and hours of effort behind the scenes that creates the enchanting experience for audiences doesn’t dull the delight for dancers.

Eugene Ballet Academy students as Angels in "The Nutcracker." Photo by Antonio Anacan.
Eugene Ballet Academy students as Angels in “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Antonio Anacan.

“Though I have danced in and watched hundreds of performances, the magic remains,” says Jennifer Martin, associate artistic director.  “And now I see that magic in my children’s eyes when we attend ‘The Nutcracker.’”

Show information — Between December 21-26, Eugene Ballet will perform three matinees of “The Nutcracker,” including one on Christmas Eve, December 24, and another on Boxing Day, December 26, as well as three evening shows. All six performances are accompanied by live music from Orchestra NEXT. Tickets — priced from $25 to $65, with $15 youth and college tickets (with valid ID) — are on sale now at eugeneballet.org/performances/, in person at the Hult Center Ticket Office, and by phone at 541-682-5000.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jean Zondervan does communications work and enjoys creating content for causes. She has written and produced collaborative projects for print, web, exhibits, and video and has a particular interest in exploring environmental and social issues through the arts. Prior to settling in Portland, she taught English as a first and second language in Texas and South Korea, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and a small gallery in England, and grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She currently tends to kids, pets, and a large garden in North Portland.

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