BY MICHAELA MARX WHEATLEY
Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
At first sight the Nutcracker ballet is about sparkling snowflakes and a Christmas Eve fantasy. But it’s also a touching coming-of-age story told through the dreams of young Clara.
Opening this Friday, Dec. 7, Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s 20th anniversary production of “The Nutcracker” will unfold all the beauty of the classic tale on stage, but behind the scenes the company is celebrating its own story about growing up and rebirth.
Artistic director Char Brown, who has been at the helm of the production since its debut in 1992, has always worked hard to keep things fresh for audiences. This time, however, new choreography, a “homegrown” assistant artistic director and an exceptionally strong cast of young talent, along with a score of returning alumni, promise to make this a standout show.
“I am so blessed to have alumni dancers who want to come back and dance,” Brown said. “I get very emotional when I think about it and I am so grateful to have them. They do it for love and not money and I can’t thank them enough.”
Brown recalled the early days when she and a handful of family members and friends scrambled to transform the small Langley Middle School theater into a magical, winter wonderland for the first production. The show has come a long way since then, and has turned out countless young dancers who chose a career in the performing arts due to their experience on “The Nutcracker” stage.
Brown said that the mix of alumni and professional dancers joining the cast this year has inspired the company tremendously.
“Our current company loves dancing next to the past company members. There is so much energy in the room,” she said.
At the same time, Brown has a new partner at her side directing the show, adding her own inspiration and energy. Amy Jo Lehman, the new assistant artistic director, who has stepped into the spot left by longtime co-artistic director Susan Sandri. Lehman, formerly Amy Berto, is a native Whidbey Islander and has been dancing since the age of 3 at Island Dance, the studio owned by Brown. She was a member of WIDT when it first began.
“Having her brings a new excitement to my job as artistic director,” Brown said.
“I feel like Amy someday will lead the organization into the future. Her love for dance and the dance theatre make her a perfect fit,” she added.
Lehman graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor in Fine Arts in Modern Dance from Texas Christian University. Since returning to the island, she has worked extensively with WIDT, choreographing for the company’s April “Dance & Choreography Showcase” and “The Nutcracker.” This is her first year as assistant artistic director, but she appears to already be a success.
For Brown the addition of Lehman continues the theme of past WIDT dancers returning to the company as mentors.
“This is huge, having a dancer that understands the history of the school and the WIDT organization. She understands the community and knows and appreciates who our sponsors are,” Brown said of Lehman.
Together Brown and Lehman have created the classic, winter fairy tale once again, with more than 100 dancers, cast and crew ready for opening night on Friday.
Set to the cherished Tchaikovsky score, the ballet tells the story of Clara, a young girl who receives a wooden nutcracker as a Christmas gift. That night she dreams that her nutcracker comes to life as a prince to battle the ferocious Rat King and afterwards invites her to embark on a magical journey.
Madyson Hunter dances the coveted role of Clara.
“This is my 14th year dancing at Island Dance; my sixth year as a company dancer, and my 11th year in ‘The Nutcracker,’” Hunter said.
Despite her youth, the 16-year-old Hunter is a veteran of the WIDT “Nutcracker,” and was chosen to dance the role many young dancers dream of performing.
For an aspiring dancer like Hunter, the local production offers a chance to rub elbows with professional guest dancers, while inspiring a whole new generation of young ballerinas.
She worked her way up through supporting roles, always looking up to the young women in the lead roles. Yet, as she created her own version of Clara, she didn’t look back.
“I don’t have a favorite Clara. Every Clara is different and that’s how it should be,” she said.
“Clara has not been the easiest role for me because Clara is all about telling the story, and I have to always be acting as Clara would, not as myself,” Hunter added.
However, she finds herself well supported by mentors.
“Working with the alumni and professional dancers is fun because it challenges all of the company dancers and gives the production a wider range of talent, ages and styles,” Hunter said.
She is in good company this year with alumna Katelyn Candelario Lodell as the Fairy Queen, Brittany Falso as the rose fairy, who shares the role with Chelsea Matthews. Graham Vanderwood, who was practically raised at Island Dance, is Clara’s Nutcracker prince, and last year’s Clara, Elliana Madsen, has become this year’s Snow Queen,
Lodell said she is proud to return for the third time as the Fairy Queen.
“Dancing in ‘The Nutcracker’ with WIDT feels like home,” Lodell said. “I am most comfortable on this stage, and love working with a cast full of the dancers and choreographers I grew up with.”
One of the highlights for the cast and creative team this year is the introduction of new choreography.
“The choreography has always been beautiful, but it’s basically been the same since I can remember,” Lodell said. “I think the audience will be excited to see a fresh take on old favorites like the Snow and Waltz of the Flowers scenes. Also, there are so many alumni coming back for the 20th year anniversary that it adds a sense of richness to the show. You’ll really get to see every generation of dancers represented,” she added.
It is also the first year that a company dancer has contributed choreography. Madsen has created a new piece for the Doll Dance in the living room scene.
The Wilkins family of choreographers ‑ Helen, her son Daniel and his wife Danielle – have also contributed fresh pieces, along with resident teachers, such as longtime company choreographer Susan Vanderwood and others.
“Technique is technique, but with new choreographers and dancers being exposed to new teachers, the level and the quality of dance has been raised,” Brown said. “Dancers and choreographers are always raising the bar, and challenging the body to give more to their art form; cross-trained dancers bring so much more because of their training in different dance styles.”
With this philosophy as a beacon, Brown and Lehman are able to make full use of “The Nutcracker’s” cast of characters, with the array of talent available to them on the island. From the variety of encounters on Clara’s magical journey, including those with mermaids, forest animals and the larger-than-life Madame Bumble, to the high level dance technique and artistic range that allows for tumbling elves, tap-dancing Nutcracker soldiers and the strength and beauty of contemporary dance moves in roles such as the Rat King, this Whidbey Island production is particularly notable.
“The WIDT Nutcracker is special in so many ways,” Lodell said.
“When you compare it to other productions in the Seattle area, I can’t express how sensational this ‘Nutcracker’ really is,” she said.
“The Nutcracker” opens Friday, Dec. 7 and runs through Dec. 16 at the South Whidbey High School Auditorium in Langley. The show is at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays, and Sundays.
Tickets are available online at www.widtonline.org or the WIDT box office at 360-341-2221, or upstairs in the Island Dance building at the Langley Middle School, 714 Camano Ave. in Langley or at Whidbey Coffee kiosks in Freeland and Clinton.
WIDT is boasting an “Opening Night” special not to be missed. Get a $7 discount on all adult tickets purchased in advance. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and $15 for youths age 17 and under. There is a $2 military discount. At the door, all seats are $22.
Michaela Marx Wheatley is a freelance journalist who has worked as a reporter/writer in the U.S. and her native Germany. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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