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Nutcracker has bigger cast, new choreography

By Jennifer Nixon

This article was published December 6, 2012 at 3:17 a.m.

— The tale of a little girl, a wooden nutcracker and a sweets-filled Christmas Eve dream has enchanted audiences around the world for generations.

Productions of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker are a holiday tradition, and this weekend in Little Rock, it’s Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra doing the honors.

Through five performances, soldiers, mice, princes and angels, under the guidance of Ballet Mistress Marla Edwards and her co-director Allison Stodola Wilson, will dance their way across the Robinson Center Music Hall stage.

Even if you’ve seen Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker before, you’ll see something new this year. Edwards and Wilson have created new choreography for this year’s production.

Wilson explains, “We’ve taken the choreography we’ve done previously and changed it up a little bit and made it even more special.”

That includes expanding the scope to accommodate more dancers.

This year is the first with the newly expanded Ballet Arkansas company. There are now nine professional dancers instead of six.

The cast list includes Leslie Dodge as the Sugar Plum Fairy; Toby Lewellen as the Nutcracker Prince and soloist in the Russian and Spanish variations; and Michael Bearden as the Sugar Plum Cavalier. Wilson herself will dance the part of the Rat Queen.

In addition to the regular company members, the cast boasts 203 community children and adults from all over the state.

“It’s very cool to get kids from all different surrounding areas together and involved,” Wilson says.

Participation requires a high level of commitment for the young people, whether they’re snowflakes or party guests. Auditions were held in August and rehearsals started in September.

“It’s a lot of sacrifice for those kids to have to be here every weekend,” Edwards says. “They can’t miss or we have to replace them. They’ve been really great about making the effort to be here.”

While auditioning doesn’t guarantee a young ballet dancer a role, Edwards says, “We want to be able to use as many of them who are capable as we can.”

To that end, Wilson and Edwards have double-cast many of the children’s parts so some of the children’s roles trade off depending on the performance day.

Adds Wilson, “We doublecast Clara. That’s every little girl’s dream. To get that role is quite competitive.”

This year’s Claras are Maggie Jones and Annabeth Hall.

Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the soloists may get most of the glory, but Edwards is quick to point to some of the unsung heroes of the production: the corps de ballet.

“The dancers don’t always get the appreciation from the audience because the audience doesn’t understand how many aspects of what they’re doing the dancers always have to have in their minds. It’s a lot about formation. It’s not about the individual but the unit. That’s really difficult to do and do well. We have a really strong group this year.”

Edwards also points to “the continuing relationship with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra,” who perform Tchaikovsky’s score for each performance.

“The audience gets the full effect of live music and dance, which is cool.”

The public will have an additional opportunity to see the show this year. Ballet Arkansas has added a Friday evening performance to the traditional schedule of Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon public shows.

Student and senior matinees are scheduled for today and Friday.

“It’s great for the dancers because it gives them another opportunity to be out on the stage after they’ve worked so hard,” Edwards says.

All the hard work really comes together and is, in the end, worthwhile, Wilson says.

“When we do our rehearsals and all the little kids get to sit in and watch the older company members and to see their faces light up and they realize they’re all part of the same big show. To see it all come together with the lighting and the costumes and the sets and the crew members, it’s a really good feeling.”

The Nutcracker

Robinson Center Music Hall

7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$45

(501) 666-1761,

Weekend, Pages 36 on 12/06/2012

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