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BWR prepares its ‘Nutcracker’

Ballet Western Reserve Artistic Director Cate Greyjoy is happy to have her dancers in familiar territory — dancing on a stage with live musical accompaniment in front of an actual audience.

Last year, Greyjoy’s first with BWR, the dancers performed “The Nutcracker” for the camera, not the crowd, and the final product was shown in the parking lot of Eastwood Field as a drive-in experience.

While learning to perform for the cameras was a valuable experience, she said, “Live performance is essential. It’s the only way to train the muscles to overcome your excitement or fear of sharing your talents in front of other people. The energy is palpable, and performers thrive on that.”

This year “The Nutcracker” returns to the Powers Auditorium stage for two public performances on Dec. 4 and 5 as Ballet Western Reserve celebrates its 60th anniversary.

That return is welcome for more than just artistic reasons.

“If you ask any ballet company, small or large, what’s their moneymaker, what can you not live without? — it’s ‘The Nutcracker,'” said BWR Executive Director Katie Merrill. “‘The Nutcracker’ pretty much keeps most ballet companies going over the course of the year.”

BWR survived the disruptions caused by COVID-19 thanks to a $42,000 CARES Act grant from the Ohio Arts Council and support from local foundations.

“That afforded us the ability to produce our ‘Nutcracker’ on a smaller scale (last year) and not require as high of a ticket income,” Merrill said. “The CARES Act grant covered most of our costs from enrollment loss because of the pandemic.”

Greyjoy was hired as BWR’s artistic director during the early months of the pandemic. One advantage to the disruption is she had more than a full year to evaluate the dancers’ abilities and work with them to improve before presenting her interpretation of “The Nutcracker” on stage.

“Now that I’ve had a year with this group of young people, by the time summer rolled around, I had really clear ideas how they needed to be challenged, how to further them artistically and what invigorations we could breathe into our current production,” Greyjoy said. “That set the foundation for how I wanted to share a beloved classic.”

Those who saw the filmed version in 2020 will see some similarities, but Greyjoy said the live staging is designed to stay true to the original E.T.A. Hoffman story that is the basis for the ballet choreographed to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. That means the addition of a couple of characters and “a fantastical twist” at the end of the story of Clara and the magical Nutcracker who leads her on a nighttime journey to enchanted lands.

The dancers will be performing with all new sets, new backdrops and many new costumes.

“It was time. We needed a fresh look,” Greyjoy said. “Every single dancer is wearing something that brings out the best in them. We have considered this production from every perspective. It’s not just rehearsing the steps. It’s how do you extend an invitation to the greater community to inspire them to be involved.”

Guest artists for the production are Austin Dabney, a former Ballet Western Reserve student who now dances with Ballet West in Utah; Judd Gibbs, who has danced with Grand Rapids Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and Dayton Ballet; and Elena Cvetkovich, another BWR alum who now teaches there and dances with Cleveland Ballet.

Accompanying the dancers on stage will be the Dana Ensemble, made up of faculty members from Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music. BWR was accompanied by YSU student musicians for its jazz “Nutcracker,” but the Dana Ensemble includes musicians with national and international acclaim in classical music.

Merrill said it’s a coup that originally was borne out of necessity.

“YSU couldn’t make a commitment to be able to use student orchestra members when we were planning, because we still weren’t sure what the world would allow (due to COVID-19), so we decided to go with YSU’s faculty orchestra,” Merrill said. “It’s kind of the best of the best from YSU. We have this star-studded orchestra to accompany us for our ‘Nutcracker’ production.”

If you go …

WHAT: Ballet Western Reserve — “The Nutcracker”

WHEN: 7 p.m. Dec. 4 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 5

WHERE: Powers Auditorium, 260 W. Federal St., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $19 to $29 and are available at the DeYor Performing Arts Center box office, online at deyorpac.org and by calling 330-744-0264.

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