116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This time of year, baby ballerinas have visions of sugar plum fairies dancing through their heads.
That’s enough to keep them on their toes as they become mice, trees and angels, working their way up to party guests, toy soldiers, flowers, snowflakes, sweets from around the world, and eventually the main roles of Clara, her nutcracker prince, the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Two major productions of “The Nutcracker” holiday classic are swirling into the Corridor this weekend.
The Nolte Academy is staging five performances Friday through Sunday, Dec. 2 to 4, 2022, at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
Ballet Quad Cities is joining Orchestra Iowa for two performances Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The dancers then will return to their home stage at the Adler Theatre in Davenport for three performances Dec. 10 and 11. Orchestra Iowa will perform with them at the matinee and evening productions Dec. 10, and taped music will be used for the Dec. 11 matinee.
“(When) we did our full in-studio run-throughs of the production, our youngest cast members are baby mice, and they’re in a very small section of the show, but they got to sit up front and watch the whole run-through,” said Loren Williams, who is in her second year with Nolte Academy in Coralville, serving as ballet director and director for “The Nutcracker.”
What: “The Nutcracker” ballet
Nolte Academy: Dec. 2 to 4: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City; $20 to $42, englert.org/events/
Ballet Quad Cities and Orchestra Iowa: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3, Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; $18 to $49, artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/nutcracker-ballet-2022/ Extra: For details on the Adler Theatre performances Dec. 10 and 11 in Davenport, go to adlertheatre.com/events/
“I would peek over at their faces sometimes, and they were eyes-wide, just soaking it in. You could tell that they were very inspired and loved watching older dancers. It was very cute.”
It’s the same reaction among the youngest dancers at Ballet Quad Cities, and that fascination doesn’t wane as they age into the other roles.
Growing with the show
“When they sign on as the small trees at age 7 and the small mice, my gosh, their eyes are big,” said Courtney Lyon, artistic director at Ballet Quad Cities, a professional troupe based in Rock Island, Ill. She’s also choreographer and director for “The Nutcracker.”
“They look at those dancers ahead of them that had grown up through the ranks of the different roles that you do as you increase your skill. And then they look at those professional dancers with huge eyes, and take in all of their movements and everything they do. So it really becomes something that they want to be a part of every year, they want to grow with,” Lyon said.
“They're so sad when it’s over. There’s so many tears in the cast when it’s over. So many really nice connections are made with their role models that they get to dance alongside with the company.”
Both troupes have long traditions of staging this perennial holiday favorite.
Carey Bostian of Iowa City, who conducts the professional community orchestra performing with the Nolte production, sees the show grow a little each year.
“Things do change,” he said. “We solve new little problems every year, and I think it just keeps getting better and better — and that is good. But mostly, it’s such great music. People don’t get tired of it. I think that’s really the key.
“And also, it’s such a pleasure to watch the dancers grow up. Their top dancers started as baby mice 10 years ago,” he said. “Some of the kids we’ve graduated, they’re just incredible. Like Paul Amrani, who is the Cavalier this year — the professional male. But at the end of his high school career, he was the Cavalier as a student. He was such a fine dancer, and he’s returning, so it’s great.“
Williams is thrilled to welcome him back for the production, “which is really cool and full circle,” she said.
“He currently lives in New York City, but he grew up dancing with Nolte Academy and received all his training here. I hope that this becomes a tradition that we can use. I think it’s great to bring alumni back to the community, so I’m excited for it this year,” Williams said.
She added two of the Sugar Plum fairies are high school seniors who have grown up through the various ranks of roles.
“One of them said she started as a baby mouse in Nolte’s production, and over the years has worked her way all the way up to Sugar Plum Fairy. For so many of them, it’s a holiday tradition,” Williams said. “They just can’t imagine the season without it.”
It’s the same sentiment at Ballet Quad Cities, which uses 45 to 50 dancers of varying experience, including the troupe’s professional members in the lead roles, as well as its auditioned students and community members.
“This year, one of the seniors in high school (who is) one of our students, knows it’s her last year, and she already had tears in one of our rehearsals,” Lyon said. “They just love this time of year. It’s so much work, and it’s really inspiring, because you have to be really, really dedicated to put in all the hours every week when sometimes they could be going to a friend’s birthday party or something like that, but they have ‘Nutcracker’ rehearsal.
“They love it,” Lyon said. “They love working together, they love when it all comes together, they love performing. It’s a really nice community of friendship that they make and support. And then, setting goals for themselves — goals that they want to achieve through the years.”
Williams and Lyon have toed all those lines, performing in various “Nutcracker” productions from their student and professional days, before stepping into their directing roles.
Putting it together
Preparing “The Nutcracker” isn’t confined to one season. It begins in the summer, long before the Snow Queen ascends her throne.
Nolte Academy has had 10 weeks of rehearsals, with preparation beginning in September. The production features 125 performers in three casts, with about 60 to 70 dancers per show. Williams and company have had four days to place all three groups on the Englert stage, from this past Sunday through Wednesday, before Thursday’s dress rehearsal with an invited school audience. Then Friday, the curtain rises on the five public performances, for which tickets are getting scarce.
Ballet Quad Cities holds auditions for the student dancers in early September, then they begin rehearsing in October. The professional dancers begin preparations in early November, then the various groups that have been rehearsing around work and school hours merge to put it all together before bringing the 50 cast members to Cedar Rapids.
“I’ll have a couple rehearsals on a Saturday where we put the two parts of the cast together, and my gosh, those are fun rehearsals,” Lyon said.
Then they form a massive car pool to transport the dancers to Cedar Rapids, where Thursday, they will work through the technical aspects on the Paramount Theatre stage, before rehearsing with Orchestra Iowa on Friday, then performing twice on Saturday.
Taking a show on the road is a massive educational experience, as well.
“We definitely prepare them for what it will be like to be there — what to expect in terms of time management, how you conduct yourself in this theater, how you’re respectful of the musicians’ time, the professional dancers’ time and spacing,” Lyon said.
“There’s a lot, there’s a lot of moving parts backstage, and so that's part of their preparation as well — not just what they do on stage, but learning to wait your turn and to wait quietly and to be respectful of how our professional production works. Even the moving of the curtains — all that stuff backstage is an education for them.”
All of this work comes at a price.
Now in its 18th production, all at the Englert Theatre, Nolte Academy’s “Nutcracker” has grown from a studio performance into a professional level communitywide event, founder Leslie Nolte said via email.
“Year one my good friend and mentor Herb Wilson gave us $5,000 to make our production a reality,” Nolte said, “and he told me the only request he had was to see our production make it to year two and then year three and beyond. His support started what is now a more than $60,000 annual production.”
At Ballet Quad Cities, building a “Nutcracker” from scratch is an expensive endeavor, with costs spiraling upward to $100,000, troupe founder and CEO Joedy Cook noted via email.
Costs include dancers and staff salaries, theater rent, stage crew, lighting designer, seamstress, costumes, pointe shoes at $150 a pair, she said, as well as costs incurred for designing and printing the program, marketing, travel, lodging, meals, movers “and the wonderful orchestra that provides the live music.”
“Another interesting fact: Our pointe shoe budget is $25,000 this year,” she added.
But it’s all worth it for Lyon, who began performing in “The Nutcracker” in fifth grade, but had to put that on a shelf when she studied at the University of Iowa, which doesn’t mount the show. She said returning to “The Nutcracker” after she graduated “felt like coming home,” and she’s been directing the show for Ballet Quad Cities since becoming artistic director in 2009.
“There’s something about it. Maybe it's like when you unwrap any treasure you have in your home that you’ve stored away for a while,” she said. “It’s like when I go to our storage, and I see our Christmas tree drops, all of our props that go on the dinner table on stage, all those candles that the angels hold. When I see all of those props, it's like they have energy and they get to come to life.
“I love this time of year. And I know that I get to impact a lot of cast members. I get to work with a lot of cast members and hopefully shape their love for dance. Then we get really nice audiences for ‘The Nutcracker,’ because they love it, too,” she said.
“It’s really good that with your effort, you can impact a lot of people with the art of dance and music.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org