For the 51st year in a row, Gainesville’s professional ballet company presents the holiday spectacle — featuring Tchaikovsky’s iconic music — onstage at the Curtis M. Phillips Center on the UF campus.
When Gainesville’s Dance Alive National Ballet first performed The Nutcracker in the mid-1960s, Judy Skinner and Kim Tuttle were teenagers in the middle of all the action during the magical “Kingdom of the Sweets.”
“Kim was ‘Russian’ soloist and I was ‘Spanish’ soloist,” Skinner said. “And we both danced ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ – my favorite at the time.”
Fifty-one years and hundreds of performances later, the sisters remain actively involved with The Nutcracker, albeit away from the spotlight. Tuttle is Dance Alive’s executive artistic director while Skinner serves as the company’s choreographer-in-residence.
Both will again be in the wings of UF’s Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, orchestrating three performances of The Nutcracker — Friday night at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2. Tickets range from $17-$45 and can be purchased at the Phillips Center box office or online at UF Performing Arts (http://performingarts.ufl.edu/tickets/).
The Nutcracker, first performed in Russia in 1892, has been a Gainesville tradition for more than half a century — and for good reason, Tuttle said.
“The music, the story, the time of year,” she said. “Christmas is the biggest international holiday that is common to so many countries, so [The Nutcracker] is popular virtually everywhere.”
Mary Ellen Pofahl, the mother of Skinner and Tuttle, choreographed Dance Alive’s earliest performances of The Nutcracker, which took place in the Gainesville High School auditorium.
“It was the only real stage available in Gainesville,” Skinner said. “It was a small group of dancers, so only Act II was performed.”
As the company grew in size and artistry, the production moved to the Constans Theatre on the UF campus.
“We were able to present the complete ballet and performed there several weekends every December,” she said. “A beautiful space, but we didn’t enjoy the four flights up concrete stairs to the dressing rooms.”
Dance Alive National Ballet’s The Nutcracker is now a full-scale stage production involving 16 principal dancers, dozens of other guest dancers, as well as a team of set, lighting and costume designers that make each and every scene a lavish affair.
New principals this year include Ukrainian star Sergii Sydorskyi and Cuban ballerina Jessie Dominguez. Crowd favorite Gretel Batista returns after a one-year absence from the company, and new dancer Leo Clarke adds zest in his role as Mouse King and Chinese.
This year, Gainesville mayor Lauren Poe will make a guest appearance as Mother Ginger during Saturday’s matinee.
Every performance this weekend will feature a different lineup of principal dancers. On Friday, Yulia Pivotskaya and Sergii Sydorskyi perform the lead roles of Sugar Plum and Cavalier. Jessie Dominguez and Roberto Vega perform the roles Saturday, and Carla Amancio and Fhilipe Teixeira on Sunday.
Gretel Batista and Andre Valladon dance “Spirits of the Forest” on Friday and Sunday, with Carla Amancio and Fhilipe Teixeira on Saturday.
Jessie Dominguez and Yulia Pivotskaya share Snow Queen, while Carla Amancio and Gretel Batista alternate as Dewdrop.
While some dancers are making their Nutcracker debut with Dance Alive, Gainesville’s Rachel Ridley has performed in The Nutcracker since she was 7. Now she is 20 and a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She is returning this year to be featured with principal dancer Andre Valladon in the Russian dance.
Dance Alive already has performed The Nutcracker this year for audiences in Newberry, S.C., Tarpon Springs and Ocala. The company will also perform three shows for area schoolchildren Thursday and Friday morning at the Phillips Center.
Based on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Nutcracker opens with a festive Christmas Eve party scene in which the story’s heroine, Clara, receives as a gift a Nutcracker in the form of a toy soldier. A later scene features a fierce battle between toy soldiers and hundreds of mice led by the Mouse King.
Clara saves the Nutcracker, who turns into a handsome prince. In a show of gratitude, the prince whisks Clara away to many lands. In the Land of Sweets, they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, who puts on a glittering spectacle.
Tuttle said her favorite scene is “Spirits of the Forest” just before intermission.
“It is the transition from the party scene in Clara’s home to the beautiful snow scene, where she travels with her Nutcracker prince to the Kingdom of the Sweets,” she said. “It has a beautiful pas de deux that evokes that magic and mystery of the story. It truly transports everyone to the high level of dance and expression that we expect from a professional company’s presentation of The Nutcracker. It also was my personal favorite to dance!”
Skinner also likes the Spirits scene, along with “Waltz of the Flowers.”
“I love Kim’s choreography — the music — the amazing quality of the dancers. Somehow those two works capture, for me, the sheer joy of dance,” she said.
Tuttle said it is important for Dance Alive to carry on The Nutcracker tradition because “We have an audience to honor. They want The Nutcracker, and therefore we want to present the best Nutcracker we can.”
Meanwhile, two special events take place Saturday to coincide with The Nutcracker. At 1 p.m., prior to the matinee performance, is the Sugar Plum Tea in the Phillips Center’s Fackler Foyer. For $20, guests can enjoy tea sandwiches, cookies and punch. Each child receives a special gift as well as a backstage pass to meet the dancers after the show.
On Saturday evening at 8 is “A Holiday Affair,” a dinner gala taking place onstage at the Phillips Center. Hosted by DJ Lewis “K-Country” Stokes, the event includes fine dining by Chef Brothers, a live auction and a “Bedroom to Ballroom” fashion show featuring Dance Alive’s principal dancers and local celebrities. For further info, call Dance Alive at 352.392.2787 or the Phillips Center box office at 800.905.2787.
— Noel Leroux
For further info, visit dancealive.org.