“The Nutcracker” casts its spell this weekend

From left: Annabelle Biggs, Hannah Murphy, Genevieve Hyland, and Megan Mendez, as Clara. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Dancing snowflakes and toy soldiers, a mouse army, live dolls, and animated confections. The fantasy world of “The Nutcracker” that has delighted generations of families, will come alive on the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center this weekend for the 13th year in a row.

The combination of professional dancers from off-Island, dedicated young students of the Martha’s Vineyard School of Ballet, and elaborate sets and costumes, make the Vineyard performances enchanting spectacles that rival metropolitan productions.

The holiday show, as always, is a collaboration between the Martha’s Vineyard School of Ballet and the Atlantic Coast Ballet Company, in Cape Cod. The first act will be performed primarily by the local students, while the professional company of the Atlantic Coast Academy of Dance will take over for the second act, which requires adult dancers. About 35 little dancers and 14 professionals are involved in the production, which also includes other actors and dancers for a grand total of 75 performers. The Atlantic Coast dancers present their own “Nutcracker” in Barnstable every season — rehearsing for both productions simultaneously.

The annual presentation of “The Nutcracker” affords Vineyarders the rare opportunity to enjoy ballet by professional dancers. The classic by Tchaikovsky, which is the most-attended ballet of all time, features perhaps the most recognizable music of any ballet, and many of the orchestral pieces have become Christmas classics. With its lively choreography, beloved music, and fantasy theme, the ballet is not just for dance enthusiasts, but has general appeal.

Although many local productions only feature some of the dances from the classic ballet, the Vineyard’s is a fully staged production, accompanied by recorded music. The technicians of Protekmv — an Island organization that provides technical services to events — have been on board for the past five years to, among other things, create some of the challenging visual illusions: such as a festive 8-foot Christmas tree growing to a staggering 30 feet. The costumes and backdrops are also professionally done, and are shared by the Cape Cod production.

Artistic director Beth Vages, who owns and operates the M.V. School of Ballet, has presented “The Nutcracker” on-Island since 1997. She was the founding owner of the Cape Cod school and originated the production over there, which she produced for 13 years. She began the Vineyard school, as a satellite of the off-Island academy (formerly named Cape Cod Ballet) and started producing dual productions of “The Nutcracker.” She sold the Cape Cod enterprise when she moved here seven years ago. She has since devoted herself to teaching local students and producing the Vineyard Nutcracker.

Tanya Vincent, who now owns and operates the Atlantic Coast Academy, will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her husband Coby Vincent, who will perform in the role of the Cavalier, is a two-time Star Search winner and previously performed with the Oregon State Ballet. Ms. Vincent also has an extensive background as a professional dancer, and it is a treat to watch these two accomplished dancers, who have taken on these principal roles for most of the Vineyard productions.

This year, two fourth graders will share the role of Clara — alternating for the two performances. On Saturday afternoon, Megan Mendez of Vineyard Haven will play the lead. A dedicated dancer, she has been performing in “The Nutcracker” since she was two years old. Megan’s brother, sixth grader Ethan Mendez, although not a dance student, will play Clara’s brother Fritz for the third year in a row.

Grace Hall, who has been participating in the show for the past three years, will play Clara in Sunday’s performance. Grace and Megan both travel off-Island three times a week to study ballet at the Atlantic Coast Academy, as well as taking one class a week here with Ms. Vages. Grace notes that she also practices a lot at home. She doesn’t seem to mind all the hard work, saying, “I’m really excited to have the lead. All of the dances are really fun and the music is always in my head. I can’t get it out.”

Sixth-grader Sarah Pertile, who played Clara for the previous three years, is now a member of the Atlantic Coast company and this year will perform with the other professionals in the second half of the show. She will dance a duet on Saturday and a solo on Sunday, as well as performing with company members in the famous Dance of the Flowers. Sarah, who is the first of Ms. Vages’ Vineyard students to join the off-Island company, has also been honored with an invitation to compete in the regional Youth America Grand Prix in February.

The other major children’s role — the Baby Mouse — will be shared by kindergarteners Genevieve Hyland and Julia Murray. A number of local adults will take on non-ballet roles in the opening party scene, with Grace’s mother and Megan’s father among them.

The show, which costs $25,000 annually to produce, is presented by Children in the Arts of Martha’s Vineyard, the parents group of the M.V. School of Ballet. They underwrite the production by fundraising and grant writing. Generous sponsors who help with expenses include Steve Bernier of Cronig’s Market and the Belisle family. The Harbor View Hotel contributes housing for the off-Island company, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council provides some funding.

The spectacular production has become a cherished Vineyard tradition. It enchants audiences, summoning up the spirit of the holidays in young and old alike. For the young dancers, it is the culmination of their hard work over the year.

Ms. Vages comments that the kids start getting excited about the performance as early as the beginning of the summer.

Says Megan Mendez, “It’s just a very fun thing to do. It’s an exciting and beautiful show.”

Nutcracker Gala, 2 pm, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5, MVRHS Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. Annual event presented by Children in the Arts of M.V., featuring Atlantic Coast Ballet, M.V. School of Ballet. $15; $25 preferred center seating; $50 families. Sponsored by Cronig’s Market.

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.