Live orchestra will enhance Dayton Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

The Dayton Ballet’s most cherished holiday production will be even more magical this year.

For the first time at the Schuster Center, The Nutcracker ballet will be accompanied by the live music of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. The historic collaboration, which takes place in the dance company’s 75th anniversary year, is made possible by the newly formed Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.

Slated for eight performances, the famous ballet opens on Sunday, Dec. 14, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 23. In addition to traditional instruments, audiences can expect to hear the tinkling of the celesta, the soothing sounds of the harps, castanets and chimes, even a toy drum. Sixty-one musicians will be seated in the orchestra pit; members of the Kettering Children’s Choir will sing.

“In a word, it’s a thrill,” says the Dayton Philharmonic’s music director, Neal Gittleman. In anticipation of this year’s project, he’s been visiting the dance studio and observing rehearsals.

“Since I came to Dayton, December hasn’t quite felt right until now!,” Gittleman says. “It’s fabulous music, perfectly designed for dancing, and full of joys, challenges and magical moments.”

The classic tale, based on the book by E.T.A. Hoffman, is the story of a young girl’s exciting adventures on a Christmas Eve. The score is by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and this Dayton version, originally choreographed in 1993 by artistic director Karen Russo Burke and her husband — former artistic director Dermot Burke — features the entire ballet company as well as more than 100 young dancers from the Dayton Ballet School and other area dance studios.

In the Dayton retelling, the original character of Clara becomes Jinny Weiffenbach and honors Dayton philanthropist Virginia W. Kettering, daughter-in-law of famous Dayton inventor Charles Kettering. Jinny’s two friends are Josephine and Hermine Schwarz, the founders of the Dayton company who are being celebrated this year in connection with the special anniversary.

While the holiday ballet appeals to anyone young-at-heart, it holds special appeal for youngsters, particularly the hundreds of children who have appeared in the production over the years. Among them are Caroline Kline and Alexandra Thickle, sisters who grew up in Oakwood and become nostalgic each year when the advertisements for the show begin to appear.

They are transported back to an unforgettable time in their childhood that began with a letter informing them they’d been selected to be in the cast of the famous Christmas ballet then staged at the Victoria Theatre.

Caroline — now 28, married and living in Cincinnati — was a fifth-grader at Holy Angels School in Dayton when she appeared as a soldier in the 1995 local production. Alex was a page in the 1994 ballet.

“I think the experience gave me a huge dose of confidence and an appreciation of the ballet,” Kline says. ” I remember that I loved being backstage and seeing the professional dancers in their costumes. I dreamed one day of being the sugar plum fairy. Most of all, I loved the applause from the audience.”

Her sister fell in love with both her costume and her own part.

“The pages wore elaborate long, purple satin skirts and vests and white ruffled blouses,” says Thickle, now a registered nurse in the residency program at Grandview Hospital. “We were required to wear our hair in tight long curls. I remember going to school during the day in pink hair rollers so that I would have a head of curls at night when performing.”

Although her part in the ballet was small, to a second-grader she says it felt like a leading role. Her grandparents arrived at the Sunday matinee with a floral bouquet and a Nutcracker tree ornament to celebrate her stage debut.

Today’s young performers continue to have similar, life-changing experiences. Just ask 13-year-old Maggie Elliott, one of the young women who will dance the coveted role of Jinny this year. Kate Delon of Oakwood will share the spotlight.

Maggie, a seventh-grader, says she dropped the phone when she received the call telling her she’d been cast as Jinny. The show, she says, has become a bonding experience for her family — her three siblings appear on stage as well.

“It’s exhilarating, now that I’m doing it I don’t think I could live without it,” says Maggie. “It’s going to be fantastic this year because having the orchestra will add to the energy.” She says she never gets nervous in the huge Mead Theatre “because you’re living the scene when you’re performing.”

The show has been an Elliott family tradition since 2006. Mom and Dad help out behind-the-scenes.

“What happens back stage is as important as what happens on stage,” believes Gine Elliott, one of the devoted parents who drive their kids to and from rehearsals and performances beginning in October. “It’s about the life lessons they learn, the work ethic. They get to see a production being made and an artistic process unfolding, they get to work with professional dancers. I try to instill in my kids the idea that this is someone else’s livelihood so they need to be responsible.”

Maggie Elliott began her Nutcracker career as a mouse at age 7. Dayton Ballet’s artistic director Karen Russo Burke can relate. Burke appeared as a mouse in The Nutcracker at the age of 5 in the Princeton Ballet School in New Jersey. She was later cast as a party child, a soldier, Mother Ginger and as the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“The Nutcracker is bigger-than-life in my life,” she says. “It has become part of who I am.”

Burke, who chooses two casts of children for the production in order to give more youngsters a chance to perform and to allow for possible illnesses, says the kids come from 13 schools throughout the region.

It’s not just those on stage who have beloved memories of The Nutcracker. Those on the other side of the footlights are enchanted as well.

Linda Phillips of Bellbrook says she and her family have many Dayton Ballet Nutcracker memories, including in 1993 when she was preparing to take her 3-year-old daughter to the show.

“This was to be her first Nutcracker and I was a little worried how a child this young would do in a production with live performers,” says Phillips, who adds that her little girl had already memorized the Little Golden Book of The Nutcracker and spent hours flitting around the house in her tutu and little pink ballet shoes listening to Tchaikovsky’s musical score.

“The day of the show arrived, and she had a total meltdown when I tried to convince her to wear the beautiful black velvet dress that I had bought her for the ballet!” recalls Phillips, who says her daughter insisted on wearing the “Clara” jumper that she’d been dancing in at home.

“She sat in her seat; eyes aglow with wonderment and shear joy while watching the beautiful ballerinas flow across the stage at the lovely, old Victoria!” remembers Phillips. ” Occasionally, she would step into the aisle and do a little spin, thanks to the gracious ushers. We thank the Dayton Ballet for creating beautiful memories for many Dayton families and keeping the holiday tradition alive!”

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