Classic Nutcracker takes local spin

By By Ella Magerl

For two students, the holiday spirit centers around ballet.
The Lawrence Arts Center’s winter performance will be the Sesquicentennial Edition of the Kansas Nutcracker.
“Where in the traditional Nutcracker, [Clara] dreams of sugar plums in the land of sweets, in Kansas, Clara dreams of cavalry and snakes and snowstorms,” said Lawrence Arts Center artistic director of performing arts Ric Averill.
The role of Older Clara is filled by senior Emma Davison and senior Shelby Steichen is the Snow Queen.
Davison has been in the Nutcracker since it started in 2002. She got involved through the ballet classes she was taking at the Arts Center. For Davison, the Nutcracker is “really Christmas-y and fun to do.”
Averill is the playwright and stage director for the ballet. He also plays the part of Godfather Drosselmeier.
“When the Arts Center opened its new building in 2002, we wanted to do a production that would celebrate our entire performing arts team, including students, professionals and community members,” Averill said.
The Arts Center first performed the Kansas Nutcracker in winter 2002. That version ran for six years, alternating with an original dance-drama written and composed by Averill based on The Snow Queen fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
The Kansas Nutcracker returned in 2011, updated from an 1856 setting to the 1861 Sesquicentennial Edition.
“Artistic director and choreographer Deb Bettinger conceived the setting, setting the opening party (scene) in the days of Bleeding Kansas and having the characters and history of Kansas become the material for the dreams of Clara,” Averill said.
When they changed to the 1861 version, historic characters such as the first governor of Kansas, Charles Robinson, and his wife, Sara, were added, along with Sen. James Lane.
We embrace the courageous and creative Lawrencian history with the traditional Nutcracker music, expressed by a mandolin-flavored orchestra, telling and dancing the story of a young girl overwhelmed by her world,” Bettinger said.
The directors kept the audience in mind when conceiving the performance.
“The music is Tchaikovsky, but the arrangement is for the 12-piece Free State Liberation Orchestra and includes two mandolins and a mandolin cello,” Averill said. “The result of the orchestration is to give a folksy or local feel to the music, very familiar to the public.”
For the performers, this adaptation provides an opportunity to take on roles slightly different from the traditional Nutcracker.
“I like that it’s personalized for Lawrence,” Davison said.
Along with the role of Older Clara, Davison performs as a clown toy, a dewdrop and snow.
Senior Sarah Sutterfield has been involved in the Nutcracker both as a performer and spectator.
“I was actually in the first Nutcracker that [the Arts Center] ever did, and I was a little rat, which was awesome,” Sutterfield said.
Although Sutterfield didn’t continue her involvement in the Nutcracker in later years, she still enjoys watching the performance.
“I always attend now to watch [Steichen perform] and to reminisce on my part as one of the Rat King’s minions,” Sutterfield said.
This year the Kansas Nutcracker will be performed seven times in December.
“Fatigue is the hardest condition,” Bettinger said. “We rehearse for eight weeks, spending many hours plodding through the material and perfecting the material to the best of our abilities.”
Davison said that one of the most difficult aspects is “not getting way too tired.” The amount of time spent rehearsing can affect performers physically and socially.
“Advanced pointe students have sore and blistered feet,” Bettinger said. “Managing family and friend pressures for time and attention can also be stressful. Commitment can mean sacrifice.”
The hard work pays off in the end, resulting in a performance showcasing the talents of more than 110 dancers and actors. Some of these performers start out at 8 years old, advancing in roles as they advance in technical capabilities.
“The growth of the performers is the most rewarding,” Bettinger said. “Roles demand technical proficiency. Hence, there is a ladder of accomplishment and artistry. Our present dance students are talented, having studied for many years, and some are stepping up to roles that have only been professional in the past.”
Considering all of the hard work and talent, Averill notes there are many things to look forward to in the performance.
“I think my favorite moment is the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers, especially when the Mouse King is challenged by the Nutcracker Prince,” Averill said. “And the dance of the Snow Queen… there are so many things to love. Including a pig.”