Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is like a well-worn pointe shoe: sturdy, familiar, dependable. It wouldn’t be December without swaying flowers and twirling snowflakes.
The Manassas Ballet Theatre, the only professional ballet company in Northern Virginia, will give its annual performance of the holiday favorite this weekend at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. With nearly 100 professional and amateur dancers in five shows, it’s the company’s largest production and most performances ever.
The music and story might be familiar, but there’s something magical about the “Nutcracker” that keeps audiences coming back for more each year. Bethany Cooke, who will dance the part of Clara, remembers when the ballet captured her heart. She was 16 and backstage as a performer in a Pittsburgh-area production when the music for the Grand Pas de Deux came on.
“It was so beautiful and somehow I had just never heard it before, and then watching them do the Grand Pas and hearing that and feeling the audience react, I just wanted to stay there forever and capture that moment in a bottle,” Cooke said.
Audiences will notice a new backdrop for the snow scene, artistic director Amy Grant Wolfe said. It’s the last “Nutcracker” backdrop she has replaced since the company moved its performances from Stonewall Jackson High School to the Hylton Center in 2010. The new piece is 60 feet wide by 25 feet high and was hand-painted by Washington area artist Tim Grant, Wolfe said.
“It’s a marvelous venue, and so you raise the bar on everything,” Wolfe said.
Logistics also factored into the decision to replace scenery.
“The other stages were smaller and height smaller, so all of the backdrops are smaller. You can mask it, you can make a smaller backdrop work, but it doesn’t look as good, because the people looking down, they see a lot of masking. So one by one, or two by two, we’ve been changing out all our backdrops.”
The company’s 17 professional dancers began rehearsals after its production of “Dracula” in October. Children and adult extras make up the rest of the cast, which ranges in age from 5 to almost 70. There are about 65 children in the production; they auditioned in May and began rehearsals in July.
Cooke, 23, was Clara in last year’s production as well.
“I don’t want to lose that momentum and don’t want it to feel stale or redundant,” said Cooke, a native of the Pittsburgh area. “I want to keep last year’s enthusiasm, but improve the technique, improve the artistry. Just faster, stronger, higher.”
Wolfe has the same plan for the company. When she took over as artistic director in 1999, Manassas Ballet’s annual budget was $30,000. The budget for this year’s “Nutcracker” alone is $150,000, and Wolfe said she expects the full budget to exceed $750,000 next year.
“My hope is that within a few years now, because we keep growing and growing, people will come to see Manassas Ballet,” Wolfe said. “Like when American Ballet Theatre comes to town, it’s not that they’re going to see ‘Swan Lake.’ They’re going to see American Ballet Theatre.”