Ballet, Contemporary, Dance

Dance Winter Preview: ‘Nutcrackers’ and More!

by Marc Shulgold

It’s impossible to escape The Nutcracker this time of year. And why would anyone want to?

For parents, it’s a cha­nce to dress up and bring the kids into the exciting world of the performing arts. For ballet troupes big and small, this enduring classic offers a chance to balance the budget — or even turn a profit. What’s not to like?

American dance companies embrace The Nutcracker, as do a handful of European ensembles. In this country, large contingents such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and others pull out the stops in staging the story of Clara and her Prince. All revel in the pleasures of eye-catching opulence onstage, live orchestras in the pit and full houses out front. For smaller companies, this is the time of year to sell a lot of tickets, raise their profiles in the community and, fingers crossed, introduce future balletomanes (and future dancers) to the magic of the art form.

And for those small troupes, the challenges of staging this heavily populated work requires extra bodies onstage — and aggressive marketing in all forms of media to lure in audiences who are faced with multiple entertainment choices during the holiday season.

We spoke with some local dance-makers who welcome those challenges. For companies such as Denver’s Ballet Ariel, Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Productions and the Broomfield-based Ballet Nouveau Colorado, presenting the holidays provide a golden opportunity to strut their stuff and to mine the talents of their youthful students.

Ballet Nouveau Colorado

Sarah Tallman, Colby Foss, CH Garrett Ammon and Dawn Fay, The Nutcracker, PH Amanda Tipton 2011

Dawn Fay and Garrett Ammon share the artistic leadership of the Broomfield company — and they also share the same household, having been married for some time now. Needless to state, they have their hands full onstage and off. Ballet Nouveau offers a full season of performances — mostly home-grown modern works. And, far from the glamor of the stage, the company also manages a school that currently enrolls 400 students. Of those, 100 are adults, ranging from 23 to 82. Yes, 82!

It’s Nutcracker time for BNC once again, offering a chance for the performing and educational sides of the company to come together. “We involve the school (in The Nutcracker) to the highest degree we can,” says Fay. No, she and her husband cannot put all of the students onstage. “We do use 54 of them,” she adds. “The youngest is 7 and the oldest is 21. And all of them had to audition.” Not everyone tries out, which is just fine, as Fay points out: “We pretty much take everyone.” Each of those who audition get a full look-see, and so the process can be nerve-wracking — particularly for the little ones. But then, that’s just the beginning of a long period of preparation that demands commitment, concentration and more than a touch of professionalism.

“The kids go through six or seven full-length rehearsals, and of course, they experience nerves through the process.” However, by the time the show opens, Fay observes, they’re so well-prepared — and more than a little tired — that these newcomers rarely experience stage fright.

Many of the younger students will serve as Clara’s friends in the heavily populated party scene. But a handful of the advanced ones will do some featured dancing. “Some of them will be in the Snow Scene, in (Waltz of the) Flowers and in the Merliton (divertissement),” Fay points out. The school has been in operation for so long that a few of the advanced teenage students are now veterans of eight or nine seasons.

While these kids feel the excitement of being part of a live ballet performance, the 10 seasoned members of the professional company likewise get a major kick out of dancing The Nutcracker. “It’s really the one time during the season where they get to go on point,” Fays says. Most of the Ballet Nouveau repertory is modern, mostly created by Ammon (who, with Fay, formerly danced with Ballet Memphis). Thus, bare feet and dance slippers are replaced with point shoes this time of year. Not that the change-over is all that traumatic.

“It doesn’t demand much of an adjustment,” Fay notes. “Most of what we do is classically based, and, of course, they take class in ballet technique every day. But really, the ladies are so strong that they handle the switch with no problem.” Point shoes, she adds, have been laced on for about a month.

Budget restrictions being what they are, Ballet Nouveau’s staging can’t compete with Colorado Ballet’s in terms of lavish sets, costumes and a live orchestra. Nor can it raise the curtain in a huge, fancy hall such as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Instead, Ballet Nouveau performs in the 585-seat Performing Arts Center of Pinnacle Charter School in North Denver. The company uses its own sets (purchased years ago from Colorado Ballet) and its own costumes (most acquired from Fay’s and Ammon’s days at Ballet Memphis). And, naturally, the music is recorded — although the rest of the season is done to live music.

“Still, the quality is very high,” Fay emphasizes. “And the (ticket) prices are relatively low.” There’s more that can attract audiences: After each performance, the children in the attendance are invited onstage to meet the dancers, examine the sets and even receive a short dance lesson from school director Julia Wilkinson Manley.  As for the show itself, Fay recalls audience comments that praised the fast-paced flow of the story. No time for kids to doze off in the Second Act. “It moves very quickly,” she says, adding that the choreography is “a mix of the best of what Garrett and I have seen and danced,”

Ballet Nouveau Colorado presents The Nutcracker Friday. December 7 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 8 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m., plus the same schedule for the weekend of Dec. 14-16.  Performances are at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W. 84th Ave., Denver. Ticket prices are $22 to $49, available at or by calling (303) 466-5685.

Frequent Flyers Productions

OK, by now we all know the story of The Nutcracker: Clara dreams that her nutcracker doll comes to life as a handsome prince who leads an army to defeat the evil Rat King and his nasty rat pack. Well, think again, because artistic director Nancy Smith and her airborne Frequent Flyers dancers have, in their words, left the familiar story “turned on its head and hanging by its tail.” Performing on low-flying trapezes, bungees, dangling fabric and (we’re not kidding here) a soaring bed, this innovative, athletic, anti-tradition troupe serves up another edition ofThe Ratcracker.

Nothing — and we mean nothing — is the same, starting with the premise of the full-evening work, in which the rats win the battle. “Instead of going to the Land of Sweets, Clara visits Rat World,” Smith explains. Actually, there isn’t just one Clara. “There’s a family of siblings — seven teen siblings, instead of a single Clara.” Oh, and there’s an equal number of teen rats.

Ratcracker by Frequent Flyers

Smith’s irreverent Ratcracker has been an on-again, off-again project for Frequent Flyers. It was presented in 2002-2004, then put it on the shelf for six years. The popular show was revived in 2010, when the company finally moved into its own facility. During that hiatus, the Flyers presented other holiday shows — but it was obvious that those lovable rats and that high-flying bed had to return. “We re-invented ourselves in 2010,” says Smith, whose company celebrates its 25th season next year. A major element in the rebirth of Frequent Flyers Productions and its offbeat holiday show was the utilizing talented students from the FFP school — a tactic similarly used by other local companies.

Smith employs a 32-member apprentice contingent, consisting of high flyers ages 8 to 38. In addition to a pair of shows each year, apprentice dancers perform high-profile roles inRatcracker. In fact, the leading male role will be danced this year by 14-year-old Jack Hinton, who’s just graduated from the apprentice company. It’s part of the evolution of a Frequent Flyer, Smith says. “We’re just starting to have adult apprentices graduate to the senior company.” That group now numbers 12, with only one male dancer.

Much has changed since Ratcracker premiered a decade ago, but the premise and most of the apparatus remain. So, too, does the Drosselmeyer of Kit Marcy. But look for new twists and stunts in the 2012 version. “We’ve been inventing new apparatus,” Smith notes. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we make this more excellent?’ We re-do the party scene each year with the adult apprentices.”

Now that aerial dance has graduated from novelty to internationally accepted performance art (with Smith as an acknowledged pioneer — with a book on the subject to prove it), it seems as if there’s no place to go but up for Frequent Flyers. One of its most ambitious productions,Theatre of the Vampires, will return in time for Halloween next year. Alas, the preparation that goes into that spectacle means that Ratcracker will not be staged in 2013. As Charlie Brown would say, “Rats!”

Frequent Flyers Productions presents Ratcracker Friday, November 30 at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 1 at 2 p.m. (sold out), Sunday, December 2 at 2 p.m., plus the same  schedule for the weekend of December 7-9. Performances are at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets are $20-25. Information: 303-444-7328 (Dairy Center box office) or visit the Dairy Center’s ticketing service at

Ballet Ariel

Ask a dozen dance company directors for their life stories, and the saga is usually the same: Ballet lessons as a toddler, then serious study mixed with adolescent dreams of joining a major company, at last a life on the stage, leading with reluctance to retirement after a long and demanding career, followed by a new phase involving teaching and, through true grit, forming and managing a dance ensemble. Ah, but then, there’s the path taken by Ballet Ariel’s director, Ilena Norton. There were no childhood fantasies of dancing on point, and certainly no dreams of doing what she’s ended up doing. “I never planned to have a company,” she says. “It just sort of happened.”

Fact is, the founder/director of the Denver-based troupe never even danced professionally. Growing up in Costa Mesa, California (deep in the heart of Orange County outside L.A.), Norton was a serious pianist, perhaps heading toward a musical career. “I had a solid arts training as a kid. But I will say that I had an interest in choreography.” That curiosity would eventually lead her into the world of classical ballet. She founded Ballet Ariel in 1998, a dozen years after she settled in Denver.

Norton’s company now numbers 10 — so, needless to add, her staging of The Nutcracker must employ additional dancers. When her company performs at the Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre next month, Norton will use 40 of the 50 students enrolled in her school.

“We teach ballet only,” she stresses. The school, located on South Broadway, opened four years ago. Student dancers range in age from 5 to 17. Clearly, this is a production that can’t compete with those presented by the bigger companies. Music is recorded, projections are used to suggest sets. And yet, Ballet Ariel has enjoyed a successful Nutcracker run at the Robinson theater for the past ten years. “People like the intimacy, and they’re very enthusiastic about our performances,” Norton observes. “Plus, ours is an affordable show.”

Wisely, Norton has taken advantage of the growing trend of smaller, suburban arts facilities, such as the PACE Center, opened a year ago in Parker. “We’re working to get an audience out there,” she says. “It’s like starting over. But people there are warming up to us.” Ballet Ariel received standing ovations for its Cinderella at PACE last spring, and for a new work by Norton, Fire Dances, staged there last month. Her company has also visited Leadville and way up in Casper, Wyoming, where her contingent hopes to present its Nutcracker in future seasons.

Attracting an audience for ballet in any community, at any time of the year, will always remain a tall order for small companies. Using every form of advertising and every technique of marketing is key, something Norton understands. “We advertise in community newspapers, we send e-mails and utilize social media.” The latter, she adds, is becoming a useful tool in reaching young people, particularly through Facebook.

As with so many companies large and small, Nutcracker stands as Ballet Ariel’s most popular attraction and, as is also common, its sole money-maker. No surprise that the production receives special attention to detail. Norton’s staging follows tradition in a concerted effort to come as close as possible to the Petipa/Ivanov version. “I’ve looked through their (original) notes and at the (Tchaikovsky) score, but over time, I’ve made it more my own,” she says. With a laugh, Norton remembers how a respectful bow to the Petipa staging backfired: In the party scene, when a pair of life-size dolls emerge from Drosselmeyer’s magic gift box, Norton decided to follow the original scenario. She discovered that the early version called for a cabbage and meat pie to pop out, instead of a pair of harlequin characters, common to most productions. “It was meant as a joke for audiences of that day,” she says of the two food items. “I tried it — and no one laughed.” Cabbage and Meat Pie were scrapped. So much for authenticity. But there is still a Russian flavor to Ballet Ariel’s version: Giana Jigarhan, a Bolshoi-trained dancer and veteran of several Russian companies, has choreographed the Sugarplum pas de deux and variations. Jigarhan has stepped in to assist in staging the company’s classical works, following the departure of associate director Patricia Renzetti.  Also assisting in bringing Nutcracker to the stage is former Oakland Ballet dancer Peter Strand, who has prepared the party scene.

In its 14th season, Ballet Ariel is still growing, still reaching out to new communities and continuing to delight audiences. The holiday season brings abundant opportunities to do all three. But the going is never easy, particularly in these uncertain economic times. “It’s always a struggle,” Norton admits.

Ballet Ariel presents The Nutcracker at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, December 8-9 and 15-16, plus 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15 in the Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre, 119 Park Avenue West, Denver. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students, seniors and children. Information: 303-945-4388 or visit

Other holiday productions

Dawson/Wallace Dance Project (a blending of the David Taylor Dance Theatre and the San Francisco-based dawsondancesf) presents two versions of The Nutcrackerin December. At 6 and 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 7, the company offers “Nutcracker in a Nutshell,” a 45-minute program that covers ballet history (including The Nutcracker, of course), offering choreography by David Taylor and James Wallace. The program takes place in Hampden Hall, 1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children, students and seniors. The company moves to the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 S. Allison Parkway, for its staging of David Taylor’s imaginativeNutcracker at 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, December 15 and 22, 1 and 5 p.m. on Sundays, December16 and 23, plus an 8 p.m. performance on Friday, December 20 (preceded at 6:30 p.m. by an hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $38 for adults, $28 for children. Tickets for the reception/show on Dec. 20 are $50. Information: 303-987-7845 or 303- 789-2030.

Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance returns to the Byron Theatre in the University of Denver’s Newman Center for its annual staging of Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum— now in its 21st year. This survey of numerous holiday celebrations combines words, music and dance. This year, longtime storyteller Vincent Robinson shares the role of Griot with Charles White. Granny will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, December 7-8, 14-15, 21-22; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays December 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23. Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors (62+) and $28 for children/students.  Information: 303-871-7720 or visit


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