Return of the Sugar Plum Fairy: Charlottesville Ballet steps up in holiday tradition

The Charlottesville Ballet presents the condensed classic The Nutcracker Suite on Saturday and Sunday at PVCC's Dickinson Theater. Publicity photo. The Charlottesville Ballet presents the condensed classic The Nutcracker Suite on Saturday and Sunday at PVCC’s Dickinson Theater. Publicity photo.

When it comes to holiday traditions, some wait with bated breath for annual broadcasts of the 1964 stop motion animation classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Others prefer rom-coms with predictably heartwarming plots. However, no December is complete without The Nutcracker. And though I’m still entranced by the 1977 version featuring the great Mikhail Baryshnikov, I admit that nothing beats a live performance of this ballet. Thankfully, Charlottesville Ballet brings The Nutcracker Suite to the local stage so we can enjoy firsthand the magic of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Land of Sweets.

For those who need a refresher, The Nutcracker is the tale of a young girl named Clara, her beloved nutcracker doll and a magical adventure that includes a run-in with the Mouse King. With its well-known score by Tchaikovsky and charming holiday imagery, countless versions have been produced by ballet companies over the years—including a recent adaptation that features BMX bike performers opposite ballerinas. For Charlottesville Ballet, this marks the fifth year in a row that its performed the work in town. Clocking in at an hour-and-a-half, this production should hold everyone’s attention and it’s “packed with dancing that is entertaining for all ages,” according to Sara Jansen Clayborne, co-director of Charlottesville Ballet.

Working with fellow co-director Emily Mott, Clayborne is proud of both the work and growth that their organization has accomplished since the non-profit’s launch in 2007. In 2011, they started the Charlottesville Ballet Academy, the educational arm of the company, which offers classes to all age groups. In 2013, they moved to a new location on route 29 North and again adapted quickly to success. “Since we made the move from Greene County, we have seen an increase of 400 percent in enrollment and have doubled our offering of our Chance to Dance outreach program for disadvantaged youth in the Albemarle County Public Schools,” said Clayborne. And this sort of dance education is a critical part of the organization’s mission, especially in the academy where ballet is offered alongside tap, modern dance and more.

Charlottesville Ballet dancers come from around the world, but each has years of dance training, as evident in the skills and expressiveness onstage in this and other company productions. For many dancers, the required work ethic is born from inspiration that’s almost as magical as the plot twists in The Nutcracker. Clayborne is no different. “As a child, I always loved watching dance and was inspired by the expression that can be translated through movement,” she said. “It is amazing to see how ballet can be a universal language for people of all ages.”

In addition to artistic expression, Charlottesville Ballet addresses the athleticism of the artform quite thoughtfully. The company and academy both place a concerted focus on the lifelong health of each dancer. One example is in the casting of The Nutcracker.

“We have three different dancers for the role of Sugar Plum Fairy to help make sure they stay injury-free and are able to dance their best,” said Clayborne. “We also double-cast most of the other roles to prevent the dancers from developing injuries caused by overuse due to the intense performance schedule.” In addition to the four Charlottesville performances taking place at PVCC’s Dickinson Theater, Charlottesville Ballet is offering additional outreach performances for local schools and non-profits. Further, it expanded its schedule to include three performances at the State Theatre in Culpeper, which took place earlier this month.

Charlottesville Ballet also goes to great lengths to prevent the creative burnout that can accompany The Nutcracker’s large number of performances on an annual basis. Simply put, the company imagines the production anew each year.

“We use a collaborative process in the creation of choreography with several choreographers and input from the cast,” Clayborne explained. “This allows for greater creativity and innovation. Each year, the process begins with analysis of the prior year’s production, what worked well and what could be improved. Audience members love the traditions included each year, but it is always nice to add elements of surprise.”

Included as part of this year’s production is the chance for aspiring ballerinas and ballerinos to take the stage. Preceding matinee performances, the ballet hosts a special event for children ages 3-8 called “Class with Clara.” It’s a way of breaking the fourth wall, allowing children to transcend the division between audience and student. “The children learn basic ballet steps and get a backstage tour and photo opportunity with some of the professional dancers,” said Clayborne. It’s not difficult to imagine countless squeals of delight this holiday season. Perhaps it will even become a new holiday tradition.

Charlottesville Ballet will perform The Nutcracker Suite on December 20 and 21. For details about “Class with Clara” and ticket information, visit charlottesvilleballet.org.

What is your favorite arts-related holidays tradition? Tell us in the comments.

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