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Holiday suites: Two versions of The Nutcracker in town this month, per tradition

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As December’s events build to the crescendo of Christmas, one beloved tradition stands out as universal as milk and cookies for Santa: the ballet called "The Nutcracker."

Sumptuous, visually stimulating and musically familiar, The Nutcracker is, for many in the United States, one of their first experiences of classical music, ballet and the arts.

The debut performance mixed received reviews in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, with music by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky and choreography by Lev Ivanov. It wasn’t until the 1954 success of the New York City Ballet’s production, staged by choreographer George Balanchine, that "The Nutcracker" began to evolve as a staple of American holiday entertainment.

The Roanoke Valley is fortunate to be home to two ballet companies, Roanoke Ballet Theatre (RBT) and Southwest Virginia Ballet (SWVB). They both present the classic each December, but were forced to take a hiatus from live performances in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. This year, audiences will return to see both companies’ presentations.

“This is our 30th year,” said Pedro Szalay, the SWVB’s artistic director for 15 of them. “Without our community supporting us, we could not do this.”

SWVB, a volunteer organization, does community outreach including classes, local and regional school programs, readings, festivals and performances. Dancers from schools across the valley train and perform with SWVB, and many of them will appear on "The Nutcracker" stage. Community members take the stage as party-goers in the ballet’s opening scene, and an adoptable dog From Angels of Assisi joins the production.

“We’ve had doctors, lawyers, TV anchors,” Szalay said. “And I teach them hard steps. I don’t make it easy for them!”

Szalay, a Venezuelan native, stressed arts’ importance to a community’s collective mental health, especially as pandemic restrictions isolated people.

“It is so important, with the two years we’ve gone through, to find the best way to touch people in our community,” he said. “Dance and music are a universal language. We thought, ‘If the community cannot come to us, how can we go to them?’ This is why we did Zoom classes, performances in the park, master classes with my dancing friends from around the world.

“People said, ‘What are you going to do about The Nutcracker?’ I said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ In December we taped The Nutcracker on stage at the Berglund Center.”

While the company will continue its practice of providing tickets for clients of social service agencies, this year they are also giving tickets to those frontline workers known as Heroes: healthcare providers, grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, and many others.

Rolando Sarabia, an award-winning dancer and newly-minted Roanoke Ballet Theatre artistic director, sees dance training and performance as a wonderful way to prepare young people for life.

“The discipline, the dedication, they take these skills into the world,” Sarabia said. “They learn to focus, to pay attention, communicate and to listen. They hear different kinds of music, they learn acting. Even as little mice and toy soldiers (in the The Nutcracker), they learn to be professionals,” whether or not they choose dance as a career.

“The audience doesn’t know how hard ballet is,” he continued. “Learning an entire three-hour ballet, or five 20-minute pieces of different styles is hard work. They come to see the beautiful costumes and hear the music of The Nutcracker, to see the beautiful steps, to be drawn into the magic.”

Cuban-born Sarabia taught at RBT as a guest instructor for six years before taking the position as artistic director. He sees the arts as integral to a community’s health and life. Part of the company’s outreach is partnership with Mental Health in Motion, an organization that educates and advocates for mental health issues through the emotional vocabulary of dance.

“Dancing is not only doing the steps, it is also you love what you do,” Sarabia said. “It is from the soul. When we as dancers are happy, we will make the people who see us happy.”

The Nutcracker story

It is Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home, and a party with much dancing and merriment is on. Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum play with the other children around a majestic Christmas tree.

Their godfather, the mysterious toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer, arrives with gifts for all the children. Clara receives the best gift — a wooden nutcracker painted as a soldier. Fritz steals the nutcracker and it is broken. Drosselmeyer mends the toy and the nutcracker is placed in a little bed under the tree, where Clara falls asleep.

She awakens to a battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King and his army. When the Nutcracker prevails, he becomes a Prince, and takes Clara to the magical Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets, where they are entertained by the Sugar Plum Fairy and dancers representing coffee, chocolate, tea, frost, flowers, Russian dolls and gingerbread.

Clara awakens under the Christmas tree with the Nutcracker in her arms.

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