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Magical dream of ballet

December 7, 2018

HUNTINGTON — A Christmas is not a Christmas until visions of sugar plums, mice, ginger snaps, flowers, snowflakes, nutcrackers and princes dance in Clara’s head.

You can fill your head and heart with the magical Christmas dream of a ballet, as Huntington Dance Theatre presents its 38th annual production of “The Nutcracker” at the Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards Playhouse, this weekend only, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7-8 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9.

Tickets ($20 or $15 for seniors and children) can be purchased through the Joan C. Edwards Playhouse box office at 304-696-ARTS (2787), or through ticketmaster.com. A pre-show gala with refreshments will be held one hour before each performance in the Playhouse lobby, and admittance is included in the performance ticket price.

Since 2015, HDT has performed a custom, “Huntingtonized” version of the holiday classic as Huntington-based ballet dancer and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and storyteller Deb Novak created the play, which pairs the E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alexandre Dumas story with music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Set in historic downtown Huntington in the 1950s in the Anderson-Newcomb Department store, the play also combines with historic film footage of Huntington and special guests.

Co-directed by HDT’s Meredith Cornell and Megan Catalogna, “The Nutcracker” is truly a community effort as the dance company has a cast of about 70 that features its students who range in age from five to high school, as well as additional professional dancers, a host of Marshall University dancers, and friends and family of HDT that fill roles many during the opening Christmas Eve party scene.

Cornell said rehearsals began at the end of August. In the past few weeks, the show’s now well-polished dancers have been performing slices of “The Nutcracker” at various holiday events from Herd Holiday to the Huntington Museum of Art’s Holiday Open House.

“We generally just rehearse on the weekends because everyone has classes during the week, but now we are in rehearsal constantly — we are there every day but Friday,” Cornell said.

In recent years, Cornell said the production has taken even a more holistic Huntington feel with Novak’s localization of the story, and with the production at the Playhouse, the home of Marshall University Theatre.

In addition to being able to use the university’s production and ticketing expertise, “The Nutcracker” will also feature more than a dozen Marshall students in the production.

“It is a spectacular place, and people like Jamez Morris-Smith and Sam Kincaid — they are incredible and make our jobs so easy,” Cornell said. “We also have Marshall University students performing with us for the very first time. Now, there is a Marshall University dance company, and it is part of the curriculum. They will be performing with us for two numbers in the first scene. They are dancers from all over the state and outside of the state. The neat thing is that they are dancers who have done Nutcrackers growing up and now they are in college, they are coming to dance with us.”

Cornell said this is the second year they have partnered with the Cabell Wayne Animal Shelter to get a rescue dog that will be in the production.

“I will go this weekend and get a rescue dog that will walk through the chaos in the opening scene. We try to make it a community effort,” Cornell said this past weekend.

That widespread American community embrace of “The Nutcracker” dates back to the 1960s when it swept across the States. The Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote “Swan Lake” in 1876, “Sleeping Beauty” in 1889 and followed those two now also classics with “The Nutcracker” in 1892. It would not be until 1934 until it migrated out of Russia to be performed in London. According to an NPR story, “The Nutcracker” was not performed in the U.S., until Christmas Eve 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet Company.

“It is the timeless story, although we do a ‘Nutcracker’ that is different from the traditional ‘Nutcracker’ as we do Huntington in the 1950s,” Cornell said. “If you have a ballet company, you do Nutcracker. It is what funds your other creative things throughout the year and for so many families it is such a tradition to go to the ‘Nutcracker.’”

For many HDT families it is a tradition that pleasantly envelopes the whole family. The Arneson family has been involved with HDT performance of “The Nutcracker” for years. The family got involved when their daughter Emma was in middle school. Their son Ethan, now 22, has been in the production since he was 5. And father Neil, a Marshall professor, plays Santa Claus.

Neil’s wife Ruth Ann said this is the first HDT performance that Emma will have missed since she began dancing in middle school. In August, she began pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Alabama.

“The Nutcracker” becomes our Christmas season and everything seems to focus around ‘The Nutcracker’ for a while, and it has for quite a few years,” Ruth Ann said. “My daughter started the tradition. Then Ethan one day said can I dance too, and Huntington Dance Theatre said yes. He started out as a Ginger Snap and has worked his way up to the Chief General Mouse and an Elf. It has been great. We appreciate Huntington Dance Theatre for all the support they have given us over the years.”

A computer programmer by day with Strictly Business, Bill Rawlinson, has been having a ball taking care of business on stage for the past six years when his youngest daughter Emily began dancing with HDT.

He started in the party scene, then played Clara’s dad, and last year stepped up to take on a new role as the dolled-up Mother Ginger.

“Mother Ginger is oddly fun, because the girls who are the Ginger Snaps have so much fun goofing off with the idea that Mother Ginger is a dude,” Rawlinson said laughing. “The little Ginger Snaps are awesome. They call me Papa Ginger.”

One of the main male student dancers in “The Nutcracker,” is Leo Okuno, 14, a freshman at Huntington St. Joseph High School. He is dancing in the role of the Nutcracker Prince.

Dancing with HDT since age 10, this is his fifth “Nutcracker,” having played Fritz (Clara’s little brother), Marzipan (one of the flutes leads), Soldier Doll, and (this year) the Nutcracker Prince.

“I love it that I get to have parts that challenge me,” Okuno said. “I have never been able to do these kinds of things before, so it is really new but also a lot of fun.”

In the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is Alex Cornell, 17, a Huntington High School senior, and the oldest student dancer for HDT.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking to be the oldest dancer and to have a lot of people look up to you, but it is still really exciting,” Cornell. “My favorite part of the the year is ‘Nutcracker.’”

Alex said “The Nutcracker” has a special holiday magic for her as she grew up watching her sister Hilary, who is 10 years older than her, dance in “The Nutcracker.”

“My sister was a dancer and the magic of watching it and being in the audience and not knowing anything behind the scenes was amazing,” Alex Cornell said. “Being a part of it now, is even better because you know how much work goes into it. Knowing that you are creating that magic for little kids in the audience is even better.”

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: Huntington Dance Theatre will perform its 38th annual production of “The Nutcracker”

WHERE: The Joan C. Edwards Playhouse, 5th Avenue, on the campus of Marshall University (across from the Memorial Student Center)

WHEN: 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7 and Saturday, Dec. 8, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9.

WHAT ELSE: A pre-show gala with refreshments will be held one hour before each performance in the Playhouse lobby, and admittance is included in the performance ticket price.

GET TICKETS: Through the Joan C. Edwards Playhouse box office or through ticketmaster.com.

ABOUT HDT: Huntington Dance Theatre is a nonprofit dance company and school located in downtown Huntington. For more information on class offerings, call 304-522-4230, visit online at www.huntingtondance.org or follow them on Facebook.

OTHER WEEKEND DANCE: At 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, Christmas With A Cause, at Jean Carlo Stephenson Auditorium, at Huntington City Hall. Organized by Nancy’s School of Dance. Come support six studios and more than 300 dancers. Funds raised go to Hospice of Huntington, tickets are $15.

MORE INCOMING NUTCRACKERS: The Ashland Youth Ballet brings the magic of “The Nutcracker” to the Paramount Arts Center at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15. The 60-plus-member cast will be accompanied by a 32-piece orchestra conducted by Scott Woodard. The orchestra, planned as part of the AYB’s 30th Anniversary Season, brings grandeur and excitement to the professionally staged ballet. The AYB was founded in the spring of 1989. Tickets for “The Nutcracker” may be purchased through the Paramount Arts Center box office at 606-324-0007 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Charleston Ballet and the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (WVSO) will together present Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 and at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Clay Center. This year’s production marks the 16th anniversary of the two organizations’ partnership. This year’s performances will feature more than 75 local dancers and guest artists from The Charleston Ballet (Kim Pauley, Artistic Director) and the Columbia Classical Ballet of South Carolina. Local artist Ted Brightwell will appear again as Mother Ginger, Brigette Madden will be dancing the role of Clara, and students from the American Academy Ballet will join the Charleston Ballet company. Maestro Grant Cooper will conduct the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Get tickets through the Clay Center Box Office at 304-561-3570 or online at www.tickets.theclaycenter.org. Tickets start at $24 and $12 for children. For additional information, visit www.thecharlestonballet.com or www.wvsymphony.org.

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