This December, thousands of children will experience the “Nutcracker” for the first time either as audience members or performers in the cast. This trip to see the “Nutcracker” is often a child’s first experience with the performing arts and can provide an introduction that inspires them to want to see more and, in time, become a supporter and donor to the arts.
Now in its 27th year, the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company (LMBC) offers a first-rate production and opportunity to introduce your child to attending a live performance with a live orchestra, fairy-tale atmosphere, wonderful sets and a cast of almost 200 local youth.
Making the best of the two-hour “Nutcracker” performance requires a little preparation. Learning about ballet techniques, the musical score and the staging of a live show will create a greater understanding for a child. Since ballet dancers use their bodies and movements to tell their story and there are no words, an introduction to the “Nutcracker” story is important. The library has books detailing the plot and characters in the “Nutcracker,” and Google and YouTube also provide a plethora of “Nutcracker” information and performance videos.
One of the most moving aspects of the LMBC “Nutcracker” is the live music provided by the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra, which has been led by Dr. Herb Dregalla since 1995. Listening to a recording of the music with your budding audience member before the performance will help build excitement and understanding.
“The music from the ‘Nutcracker’ is the perfect entrance into the wide world of classical music. Because the music of the ‘Nutcracker’ is used so often as holiday background music, virtually everyone in the United States has, whether they realize it or not, heard this wonderful music.” said Dregalla. “The ‘Nutcracker’ is full of many recognizable melodies. For this reason it is very easy to listen to, but, because it is great music, the more carefully one listens, the more one can hear the subtle musical components put there by the composer. For this reason, the ‘Nutcracker’ can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of his or her musical background.”
Tchaikovsky’s music for the “Nutcracker” offers a great way to teach a child about all the instruments in the orchestra and how they are used to enhance what is happening visually on the stage.
“In the music of the ‘Nutcracker,’ Tchaikovsky uses a full array of woodwind, brass, string and percussion instruments. The special tone qualities of various instruments perfectly portray the qualities of the various ‘Nutcracker’ characters,” said Dregalla. “In Act 1, listen to how the flutes create the wintery effect during the ‘snow scene.’ In Act 2 listen for the brass to announce the majestic arrival of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. In the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,’ listen to Tchaikovsky’s use of the Celeste, a new instrument at that time, and how it matches the style of the delicate dance.”
Watching the orchestra conductor, his gestures and eye contact with the musicians and dancers is also a part of the live performance experience.
“Ballet combines the power, elegance, and movements of the dancer with the sounds and musical colors of the full symphony orchestra. The role of the orchestra conductor is to bring these two broad artistic elements together, “ said Dregalla. “The conductor must watch the dancers and listen to the musicians, reacting to both ‘in the moment.’ It is this special relationship between dancer and musician that makes the performance special. While it is certainly possible to enjoy a dance performance that has no music, or enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music without the dancers, putting them together in a ballet is what makes this and every performance of ‘Nutcracker’ special. The conductor is the person that bridges the gap between these units.”
When watching the dance, knowing what to look for in a dancer’s movements will enhance understanding of the technical difficulty and the artistry of their performance. LMBC Artistic Director Shari True suggests that we watch for a dancer’s body being “strong like steel” and the arms being “soft like silk.” The ends of the feet should be “sharp like pencils.” Dancers will look like they are moving their arms in a never-ending ribbon and painting the story as if they have paint on their fingers. Men jump higher and do more turns and leaps but are expected to land quietly and softly. Men never dance on pointe, and women dance on the end of their pointe shoes. The audience should also watch how well the corps de ballet stays together as a unit.
“It is really hard to be in the corps de ballet, and it can be underappreciated. Being in the corps can be harder than being a soloist,” said True.
Ballet etiquette also calls for applause when a dancer performs a difficult movement.
“Audiences should applaud when a ballerina does continuous turns called fouettes. This should be appreciated like a football player catching a pass in the end zone!” said Tracey Hart, who has more than 10 students from her studio participating in the 2011 “Nutcracker.”
Preparing your child to watch for the excitement and creativity of the staging of the production will also increase their enjoyment of the show.
“There is always something new,” said True.” Over the years, I have added a magical bed that moves around the stage, a flying swan and lighting effects that make the audience feel like snow is falling on them. While a child might be enjoying a cookie during intermission, there is a whole crew backstage turning the flying swan around so that it can fly back in from the other direction at the beginning of Act 2.”
The young performers on the stage during the ‘Nutcracker’ have arts immersion experience that goes beyond that of an audience member. They perform with professional guest artists who are hired each year for their artistry and facility in working with young dancers.
“Each year the guest dancers compliment us on our professional production and the enthusiasm of our young dancers,” said True.
In just a few years 30 Lincoln girls will have danced the lead role of Clara in the LMBC production. One of those girls was Emily Bulling, who was Clara in 2004. She is now pursuing an MFA in dance with an emphasis in choreography at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. “My first part in the ‘Nutcracker’ was as a little mouse when I was in fifth grade. I had been taking dance classes for several years before that, but this was the first time I was in a full-scale production. Dancing on the Lied stage was incredible and going through the whole process was very memorable as a child,” said Bulling. “I remember looking up to the older dancers and dreaming of being just like them someday. The professionalism of LMBC’s ‘Nutcracker’ is admirable, and we were taught to act like professionals from a young age. Even if dancers in the ‘Nutcracker’ do not go on to become professionals in the dance field, having the experience of being part of such a large-scale production and seeing all the parts come together as a result of so many people’s hard work gives young people an appreciation of the performing arts you can’t get just by attending a performance.”
“The ‘Nutcracker’ is such an important experience because dancers can learn the artistry of storytelling at a young age,” said True. “It is great for Lincoln kids to have such a valuable performing arts tool and for audiences in Lincoln to have such an enduring adventure to bring their kids and grandkids to learn about the experience the ballet has to offer.”
The "Nutcracker" will be performed by the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company at the Lied Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. For tickets, call the Lied Center box office, (402) 472-4700.