Behind the scenes at Nutcracker
Like the final glittery sprinkling of tinsel on a tree, the annual production of the Nutcracker at the High School's Performing Arts Center never fails to delight and summon the magic of the holiday season.
The Nutcracker Gala will be presented this weekend for its 11th season. Many say that the production - complete with elaborate sets, and spectacular handmade costumes - compares favorably with a metropolitan production.
This year's cast of 76 will include 14 professional dancers from the Atlantic Coast Ballet. The rest of the roles are filled by the more than 40 young girls from the Martha's Vineyard School of Ballet, as well as lsland adults and boys, often recruited from the families of the young ballerinas.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Director Beth Vages, who founded both the Cape Cod School of Ballet (under new ownership and renamed Atlantic Coast Ballet), has been putting on productions of the Nutcracker for 15 years. She herself has fond memories of dancing in the Nutcracker when she was a little girl.
Says Ms. Vages, "It definitely makes children's dreams come true. It's something they'll remember forever. They'll tell their children about it."
Barbara Pertile, mother of nine-year-old Sarah Pertile (Saturday's Clara), is also playing Clara's mother. The family has even recruited Sarah's grandmother from Michigan to help keep the costumes in shape. Ms. Pertile remembers, "I did the Nutcracker for eight years with the Hartford City Ballet. I'm used to the practice schedule."
Sarah, who's been studying dance for three years, trains for two days a week here with Ms. Vages and two days on the Cape with the Atlantic Coast Ballet's new director, Tanya Vincent, who directs the second half of the ballet featuring the professional dancers. She comments, "Tanya says you come to class whether you're sick or not and watch."
Ms. Vages agrees: "It's a more intensive program over there. Here, kids are more diversified. They do a lot of things."
Seven-year-old Megan Mendez also commutes weekly to the Cape. She's been taking lessons since she was two and will play various roles in the Nutcracker, including a party girl and a mouse. Her brother Ethan, 10, is performing in the role of Fritz. The kids' father, Christopher, is one of the adult dancers, while mother, Katherine, will be involved behind the scenes, selling tickets and helping out with the financial end of things, as well as acting as a backstage aid to Ms. Vages.
Ethan was persuaded to join the cast three years ago when he was attending rehearsals with his sister. He likes being backstage. "There's a lot of action," he explains. His mother, who has a pretty good backstage perspective, agrees that there's just as much drama behind the scenes as there is on stage. The children run around, wrestle and rehearse dance numbers releasing pent-up energy.
Second-grader Megan enjoys sharing this special tradition with her family. She's especially excited this year to be performing with her real dad as her fictional dad in the party scene.
(Sunday's performance) and Ethan Mendez as Fritz rehearse with enthusiasm.
Another family with a tradition of involvement with the Nutcracker is the Condon family. Seven-year-old Mackenzie and her twin sister Alexis have performed in the production for the past three seasons. This year, Alexis opted out of dance to focus on riding. However, the girls' mother Carlene was talked into participating last year and she says she really enjoys dancing with her girls on stage.
"I'm really looking forward to it," says Ms. Condon, "It kicks off the Christmas season, but still leaves us a little sanity before the holiday."
Second-grader Mackenzie remembers the year she was stepped on by Mother Ginger. She was playing one of the little dancers who magically appear from under the skirt of the animated gingerbread house. This year, she'll take a less hazardous role. "I'm a party boy," she says.
Her mom explains that her daughter finds the role more fun than others she's performed. "The boys are a little bit naughty. She likes that."
Director Vages, who uses two Claras so that there is always an understudy, has even enlisted a member of her own family for the show this year. Her 10-year-old niece, Kendra Frank, will be traveling from Centerville to take over as Clara on Sunday. Kendra has been in five Nutcrackers on the Cape, and notes the difference between the two productions, saying that there is more dancing on the Cape, more acting here.
It's not just Vineyard families who have grown up with the Nutcracker, the Martha's Vineyard production itself has matured and become more independent since it was first staged here in 1998. In the beginning, the Martha's Vineyard School of Ballet was a satellite school of the Cape Cod Ballet, with teachers coming over once a week. At that time many of the Nutcracker's children's roles went to off-Island kids. When Ms. Vages moved to the Vineyard six years ago, the Martha's Vineyard school became full-time and she started casting local students as Fritz and Clara, as well as in all the juvenile roles.
In 2006, the production also became self-supporting. Children in the Arts of Martha's Vineyard became the sole presenter of the Martha's Vineyard Nutcracker, meaning they are no longer aided by funding from Cape Cod, but rely fully on local donors and ticket sales.
Ms. Vages says that it gets harder financially every year to stage the elaborate production, but she says she finds the community very supportive of the arts. Despite the fact that she had a very successful business on the Cape and students who have gone on to dance with some of the country's most prestigious troupes, the dance instructor moved to the Vineyard because she preferred it to the lifestyle on the Cape. "There are not enough artists there," she says. "It wasn't me."
Ms. Vages says, "I can't give [Nutcracker] up because of the kids." Her students, she says, have become part of her family.
Nutcracker Gala, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6 and 7, 2 pm, Performing Arts Center, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Oak Bluffs. Features Atlantic Coast Ballet and Martha's Vineyard School of Ballet. $15; $25 priority; $50 family.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.