Months go into the planning, the adjusting, the practicing.
Hours at home. Hours at the studio. Hours on the stage. Hours and hours and hours.
Organization of the new production begins the minute the current one ends. And a year later, for three days in December, visions of sugar plums come to life and the Nutcracker is reborn.
Dozens of young people, their parents and the community come together to immerse themselves in the annual re-telling of the timeless and familiar strains of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. And Rocky Mountain Dance Theatre brings the illustrious ballet to life.
When the final curtain closes on the last performance, organizers ponder what was, what is and what will be a year from now, when costumes, toe shoes and bright lights lift the spirts of those who watch, those who teach and those who dance.
Executive and Artistic Director Elizabeth Fernandez and Director of Development and Public Relations Alicia Singer, who danced in nine Nutcrackers, took a few minutes to reflect on this year’s production, which ran Dec. 11-13.
QUESTION: What are your overall impressions of the three performances?
SINGER: Each year the Nutcracker evolves. I recently watched a video of the last Nutcracker I performed in, in 2006 [when I danced Spanish as a duet with Elizabeth]. Every thing is better. The dancers are better. They have had more time to train with Elizabeth, the props and stage effects are better and the lighting is better.
There are more community members in the audience and people are more excited about the arts. Elizabeth has taken RMDT and the Nutcracker so far in 18 years, it excites me to see what she will do in the next 18.
Fernandez: Each year there is a balance between rehearsing enough and peaking at the right moment. This year the balance was perfect. The dancers were at their best during performance time and each dancer gave 100 percent to their roles. I was proud of them and very happy with their performances.
Q: What were the biggest challenges to overcome in putting this on?
Singer: Whenever you put on a production that involves so many people, 100 dancers and over 50 volunteers and a stage crew, and over 1,200 ticket holders and an additional 1,400 children who see the performances for free, there are bound to be challenges.
It’s just the nature of the business. Each year presents hurdles, like this year, many of our dancers had strep throat the week leading into the Nutcracker or the snow storm that found its way to Cody resulting in our stage crew and our guest artist missing their flights home.
We also were sent the wrong backdrop, which had to be sent over-night and went up a day late. Many little items come up, like a ripped costume, preschool dancers missing their mom or a bloody nose (The Nutcracker got one on stage during one of the school performances, all over his costume.)
But we are incredibly lucky to have Elizabeth as our fearless leader, whose motto has always been, “If there’s a problem, there’s a solution.” If she didn’t have that mentality, we would never be able to pull of a production like this.
Fernandez: This year we had two Rocky Mountain School of the Arts senior dancers who performed the role of Sugar Plum. The role of Sugar Plum is incredibly challenging because of the technical demands of the role.
Normally this role, along with that of the Cavalier, are performed by professional dancers, but this year we had two advanced dancers [Jessica McNeil and Claire Johnson] who were able to complete this role. This is amazing, truly amazing, but with this comes an immense amount of work. Not only did these dancers rehearse nearly every day, we also took trips to Arizona so they could train with the professional Cavalier, Michael Cook.
The Sugar Plum dances with the Cavalier, a 5-minute pas de deux, which is a long pas and requires incredible strength and stamina, making it imperative that we travel to work with Michael. The extra time, effort and monetary needs of this addition were incredibly challenging, although worth every minute. They were beautiful.
Q: What went on behind the scenes? Those things that need to be noted ... support crew, who brought you meals during long practices, who kept the little ones from getting too nervous?
Singer: We have an incredible support crew. Elizabeth’s mother, Cindi, makes all of the meals for the stage crew the whole week of the Nutcracker and has been doing so for the last 18 years.
In addition, she and one of our brave mothers, Tiffin Etter, manage the backstage and organize all the children, with the help of several more volunteers. We had over 40 parents sign up to help this year with jobs such as: Lobby decoration, ushering, ticket sales, backstage assistance, load in and load out, gift and flower store sales.
In addition, we have moms like Joy Williams, who works all year on the costuming and then stays backstage through all the performances for when costumes rip or alterations needed at the last minute. We have dads like Sean Murray, who takes a day off work to be backstage to help with the stage production for both Friday productions and is also our technical director’s right-hand man for the Saturday and Sunday shows.
One of our dads, Dale Jones, even lets us store a semi truck full of Nutcracker props on his property all year long, and is there to deliver them at 7 a.m. the Wednesday before the performances and pick them up Sunday when the show is over. There are so many more examples we could list.
Q: How difficult was it to say goodbye to the three seniors – McNeil, Johnston
and Bekah Loberg.
Fernandez: Saying goodbye to my seniors is always bittersweet. We spend hours upon hours together each week, and we consider each other family. I miss them tremendously when they graduate; their amazing talent and their amazing character. At the same time I am excited to see what they will share with the rest of the world and to see what they will become. I know their amazing capacity and I know whatever they decide to do, they will be nothing short of great.
Q: What worked better this year than in years past? What changes are in the story for next year?
Fernandez: I reworked the “party scene” during Act I and I think it was our best to date. It seemed to flow better and to portray the story better than before. We also had more rehearsals than previous years and this certainly seemed to make a difference.
As for changes, I am always changing something. My mind never stops running. Sometimes my mind runs faster than we can implement, but eventually we get there. As for next year’s changes: There are many. Stay tuned.
Q. It costs $40,000 to stage this ... people are asking: Where does the money come from? Donors? Dance lessons?
Singer: The Nutcracker production has many expenses including: Auditorium rental (five days), a professional lighting director, technical director, sound director, videographer, guest artists, costuming, back drops, props, advertisement, travel expenses for our stage crew and artists.
About 30 percent of the production cost is covered by the ticket fee and the dancers each pay a small tuition to be cast in the Nutcracker, which covers an additional 10 percent.
The rest of the money is raised through private donations and our student fundraisers and a very small amount in our gift store and flower sales. We are very grateful we have been able to keep our ticket prices low, due to the generosity of our community. We have a very supportive board of directors that supports what we do and an exceptional fundraising committee that is out raising money year-round to support our programs.
(Vin Cappiello can be reached at email@example.com.)