“I know Christmas is coming soon when I find ‘Nutcracker’ sheet music in my mailbox,” muses Beverly Andrews, concertmaster of the City Ballet Orchestra. “Opening the familiar score is like greeting a favorite old friend again.”
Andrews and City Ballet Orchestra members’ homes have been filled with sounds of Sugar Plum Fairies for months. They’ve been preparing the return of “A Carolina Nutcracker” to the Wilson Center December 7-8.
A take on Tchaikovsky’s traditional holiday ballet, “A Carolina Nutcracker” is set in 1865 Wilmington at the Bellamy Mansion. It marries classic elements of the original, like Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King and the Sugar-Plum Fairy, with Cape Fear history. Clara is recast as real historical figure Ellen Bellamy at age 13, alongside other Wilmington-based characters from the period. Featuring Carolina Ballet principal dancer Jan Burkhard (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Adam Chavis (Drosselmeyer), will dance to the score, performed by a 50-piece orchestra and treble chorus.
“[The instrumentalists] play with emotion and grace particular to the flavor of each dance,” Andrews says. “When it’s a battle scene, the pit erupts with fiery motion, wild bow arms and flashing fast fingers. When it’s a delicate snowflake dance, the orchestra pit sways and lilts like gently falling snow. We keep the story in our heads as we play, and we smile a lot, just knowing we are part of a grand Christmas tradition.”
City Ballet’s artistic director Andrea Hill and her husband, music director Alex Hill, have been producing “The Nutcracker” since 1996. Their first runs were with Ballet Theatre of Central Pennsylvania until 2010, and here in Wilmington with City Ballet since 2011.
“Ours was the very first ‘Nutcracker’ at the new Wilson Center in early December 2015,” Alex notes. “In fact, we had been planning this production for more than a year in advance with Wilson Center Executive Director Shane Fernando, while the performing arts center was still under construction.”
Since its debut production, “A Carolina Nutcracker” has featured a live professional orchestra, treble chorus and even a horse-drawn surrey, provided by Springbrook Farms/Wilmington Carriage Tours. Building upon E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story and the 1892 ballet version in St. Petersburg by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the Hills have truly tailored this “Nutcracker” to Wilmington.
“We’ve painstakingly researched people, events, families and customs of that time, and merged them all into the traditional ‘Nutcracker’ story,” Andrea adds. “It is a type of historical fiction.”
encore spoke to the Hills and City Ballet’s Jan Burkhard to learn more.
encore (e): Nothing says holidays like “The Nutcracker.” How connected is “The Nutcracker” to your own sense of season?
Andrea Hill: As a classical ballet/classical music family, it is a big part of our sense of season! It’s funny that, after this many years, we never really tire of the music or the story. Our six children have grown up with it, and all of them have performed in it in some capacity. It’s a great start to our holiday season, and we’re thankful to share it as a family, among many other holiday traditions we love.
Jan Burkhard (JB): “The Nutcracker” has always coincided with my feeling the holiday spirit. It has almost always been all that I’ve known as the “kickoff” or “countdown” to Christmas. Every time I hear the start of Tchaikovsky’s score, I’m instantly brought back to my childhood and it’s always followed by a warm smile. While “Nutcracker” time is almost always viewed as a tough time for professional ballet dancers, largely due to the amount of shows we typically perform, it is still looked at as a time of nostalgia, comfort, and joy for all. “Nutcracker” truly is, and always will be, special.
e: How many times have you seen or played a role with this particular show?
Alex: Neither Andrea nor I actually “see” the show in the traditional sense. She is working and watching from backstage, helping dancers with entrances, costume changes, scene changes, etc., and I am conducting the orchestra in the pit and only see a little bit of it from below. Ballet Mistress Diane Orio-Gerberg is always in the house watching, taking notes, and then bringing corrections and suggestions back to the dancers.
JB: This year will be my third year performing “A Carolina Nutcracker.” I’ve been performing “The Nutcracker” since I was a child. The first one I did was with my first dance school in my hometown Piscataway, NJ. After that I performed as a child with The New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center. The latest “Nutcracker” I’ve been doing is Robert Weiss’ with Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, NC for the past 15 seasons. I’ve seen and been a part of it more times than I can count!
e: Do the different local elements have an impact on your respective jobs?
Andrea: All our productions of “The Nutcracker,” for over 20 years, have included a spoken prologue—a fable called “The Hard Nut,” part of Hoffmann’s original tale—which sets up most of the character relationships and really helps the audience understand the plot. In this production, that fable is delightfully told in recorded narration by Nan Graham, a beloved specialist in all things Southern and a familiar voice to listeners of WHQR. The prologue, and the fable, set the tone and place in an innovative way, like a voice from Wilmington’s own past.
JB: It’s always fun to be a part of different “Nutcracker” versions—the holiday spirit it brings you never gets old. When a version can be so specifically tailored to its community and audience, like “A Carolina Nutcracker,” the performance is even more impactful for its attendees. I find the show to be more special, touching and personal.
e: What are your favorite moments/scenes from the production and why?
Alex: There are so many wonderful scenes, but we’ve put a lot of thought into the conclusion of Act I—the dramatic heart of the story. The furious “Battle of the Mice” (a very difficult piece for the orchestra) is followed by a beautiful, lyrical slow movement. In most “Nutcracker” productions, this scene involves a “snow queen” character with a nameless “cavalier,” neither of whom are relevant to the story. We’ve staged it as a “pas de trois” for Drosselmeyer, Nutcracker and Ellen, where Hoffmann’s central dramatic conflict is heroically resolved. The emotional release of this scene leads into the magical “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” with an ethereal wordless treble chorus and a stage full of swirling dancers in white. It is truly a scene to remember.
JB: I find the whole opening of “A Carolina Nutcracker” to be very unique and special. The way the original storytelling of the Bellamy family occurs with the dancers on stage sets up the whole show so perfectly and really engages the audience into the personal nature of this version of a “Nutcracker.” It’s a perfect mix of taking a classic story and making it Wilmington’s own.