Holiday spirited 

Savannah does seem to love The Nutcracker.

Every year there are several local productions that are very popular indeed. This year, there will be a full-scale professional production of The Nutcracker, presented Nov. 26 by the Columbia City Ballet at the Savannah Civic Center.

“I want the audience to get the Christmas spirit, the holiday spirit,” says William Starrett, executive and artistic director of the Columbia City Ballet, which is based in Columbia, S.C.

Starrett choreographed this production of The Nutcracker. “It’s our first performance of The Nutcracker for the season,” he says. “We are touring in five cities and Savannah is the first one.”

Several things make this production of The Nutcracker unique, Starrett says. “For one thing, we have male dancers in the snow scene,” he says.

“There are only three ballet companies in the world that do that,” Starrett says. “I feel those parts are not gender specific. The male dancers lifting the female dancers in the snow is highly effective.”

Also, there is a lot of snow in this Nutcracker. “There are three snow banks, the same as the New York City Ballet,” Starrett says.

“It’s very impressive,” he says. “Especially here in the South, where we don’t get to see very much snow.”

The production will have a cast of about 100 dancers, including more than 50 local dancers. “We’ve been working them for more than a month now,” Starrett says. “Our company has 42 full-time, paid professional dancers.”

Eleven-year-old Evan McGaughey of Savannah will dance the role of Clara. “We’ve been working with Evan for a couple of years, getting her ready for the coming performance,” Starrett says.

Kathryn Smoak, who danced the role of Clara for the Columbia City Ballet in 1995, will perform a solo as a grown-up Clara in the dream sequences. “Clara was my favorite role growing up,” she says.

“I’m very excited to have the opportunity to re-invent the role as a more mature dancer,” Smoak says. “It also helps to add a new twist to The Nutcracker, to keep it fresh year after year.”

In more traditional Nutcrackers, the first act is somewhat slow, Starrett says. In his version, there is a lot of spirited dancing in the first act.

“A group of cadets come to the Christmas party,” Starrett says. “There is a lot of dancing involved.

“I make it very fast-paced,” he says. “When Tchaikovsky wrote the music, there were a lot of repeats, which is not something audiences are used to these days. The music in this production is tighter.”

If a role calls for an adult, an adult will dance that role and if a role calls for a child, a child will dance that role. “I use children in the child-appropriate roles,” Starrett says. “Some other companies use adults for all the parts.”

The production will feature large sets and more than 600 costumes. There also will be special effects.

But at its core, the production is quite traditional, with Tchaikovsky’s lilting music and enchanting story. The Nutcracker tells the story of a little girl named Clara, who is given a special nutcracker by her godfather on Christmas Eve.

This gift is by far the best present of the evening. Clara awakens in the middle of the night to a room filled with mice, and her nutcracker comes to life to save her from the evil Rat King.

Clara and the Nutcracker then go on a journey to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court dance to thank Clara for defeating the Rat King. When Clara wakes up on Christmas morning, she wonders if it all was really a dream.

This year, Starrett is celebrating his 20th anniversary as the director of the Columbia City Ballet. “My job as the artistic director is to surpass the standards already set by the previous seasons and keep the production fresh, magical and with enough new surprises that the audiences look forward to returning to see our Nutcracker,” he says.

“Thanksgiving weekend is a wonderful time to see The Nutcracker,” Starrett says. “It’s a great time to reflect on what’s important. What better time to all come together and see The Nutcracker?”

The Columbia City Ballet is the oldest ballet company in South Carolina, having been in existence for 28 years. “We always have people who think we’re from New York,” Starrett says. “They can’t believe we’re local.”

The company will return to Savannah on Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. to present Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. A motion picture based on Sendak’s popular children’s book is coming out soon.

“All the ballet rights will be shut down because of that,” Starrett says. “This may be the last chance to see this ballet for many years.”

Taking such a large production as The Nutcracker on the road is a huge endeavor. “It’s a huge puzzle,” Starrett says. “Fortunately, I have a terrific staff. Every year, they fine-tune it.

“We have a very strict rehearsal schedule,” he says. “No one can miss rehearsals. Children are an integral part of the production and have to make a commitment to it.”

Starrett has been involved in the Savannah dance scene since the early 1990s, so he knows there are many talented dancers in the city. The local dancers who will participate in The Nutcracker range in age from 4 to 17 years old.

“The children’s wide-eyed exuberance and sheer joy at being a mouse or a bonbon or any part of The Nutcracker jump-starts me and the rest of the company into the holiday spirit,” Starrett says. “It’s part of what I need to do in terms of nurturing them for the future.

“I have to constantly remind myself that this is an entirely new experience for them,” he says. “Even though I’ve been involved with The Nutcracker for more than 30 years, it’s new to them.

“This is something they will never forget,” Starrett says. “Even if they don’t become professional dancers, it can be a life-changing experience. They will always remember it as a wonderful, wonderful time in their lives.”

Savannah may already love The Nutcracker now, but Starrett thinks residents will be stunned by his production. “I think they won’t believe the caliber of the production and the fact that they have a production like this in their city,” he says. “I think they will be very surprised.

“A lot of touring companies are worn out,” Starrett says. “They have a recipe that they do year in and year out. Our production has been made fresh and new and spirited.”

There’s another twist. “It has a real Southern flavor,” Starrett says. “It’s ‘Scarlett O’Hara has come to the party.’

“The costumes are not Victorian, they’re more Edwardian, which is a lot more fun,” he says. “This is a Nutcracker that Savannah will embrace.” ƒç


The Columbia City Ballet will present The Nutcracker on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 3 p.m. at the Savannah Civic Center. Tickets range in price from $12 to $42 and are on sale at the civic center box office and by calling 651-6556.



Ballet Savannah is presenting a world premiere of The Nutcracker, A Child’s Dream on Saturday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre.

The production, a celebration of the classic Nutcracker, was choreographed by Ballet Savannah Artistic Director James Atkinson.

“It’s a brand-new production,” he says. “Ballet Savannah has seven new professional dancers who have joined our company. We’re very excited about this Nutcracker.”

The casts of both performances will include professional dancers and local children.
Special guest artist Rie Ichikawa, a soloist with the Boston Ballet, and Principal Dancer Chris Ramsey, a native of Georgia, will share the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Gabrielle Sprauve will dance the role of Clara in the matinee performance, while Caroline Steed will dance the role in the evening performance.

Tickets range in price from $12 to $40. The purchase of the $40 ticket will include an invitation to the Nutcracker Sweet Dreams Party, held after the performances.

At the party, children will have the chance to meet Clara, the Rat King, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker himself. Treats and complimentary beverages will be served.

There even will be The Nutcracker gift shop, where there will be Christmas music and an artist who will create holiday paintings on the spot. The party is open to all ages. -- Linda Sickler  ƒç

The Nutcracker, A Child’s Dream will be performed  Saturday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. at the Lucas.  Tickets can be purchased at the SCAD Box Office. To purchase tickets by phone, call 525-5050. Tickets also can be purchased online at www.scadboxoffice.com.



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Linda Sickler

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