By Michelle Trauring
It is officially “Nutcracker” season when Sara Jo Strickland cannot recall the last time she had a day off.
And while the director of the Hampton Ballet Theater School (HBTS) may feel tired, she is far from bitter — busy teaching the choreography she has loved for the past 11 years, as her ballerinas twirl in the steps of young Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and adorable divertissements, along to Tchaikovsky’s spectacular score.
“There’s nothing like The Nutcracker,” she said. “It’s a magical thing.”
The classic ballet — which HBTS dancers will present starting Friday, December 6, at Guild Hall in East Hampton — tells the beloved tale of Clara, whose godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, gives her a wooden nutcracker at a family party on Christmas Eve that her brother, Fitz, swiftly breaks.
After everyone has gone to bed, Clara sneaks out of her room to check on the nutcracker. As she approaches, the clock strikes midnight, mice fill the room and she is suddenly caught in a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers, led by her now life-sized Nutcracker, and the rodents, led by the Mouse King.
Except, in Studio 3’s interpretation, the story’s hero is actually fighting the evil Red Queen from “Alice in Wonderland” — the theme behind this year’s “Mixed Nuts,” a production that mashes the traditional ballet with tap, contemporary, hip-hop and lyrical dance, not to mention a different story altogether.
“It seems that you can never run out of tales to twist,” said Diane Shumway, founder and artistic director of Studio 3. “We have people that come back every year that are not even related to the kids just to see what we’re doing. Some people have made it their family tradition. When it comes out in the paper, of course, everybody knows what we’re mixing up, but that makes it all the more fun.”
Chasing the White Rabbit, Alice — the “Mixed Nuts” version of Clara — finds herself at the Mad Hatter’s Christmas tea party, where she receives a white rabbit nutcracker that ultimately transforms into the Nutcracker Prince to battle the Red Queen. Victorious, Alice and the Nutcracker Prince fall through the rabbit hole into the Hall of Doors, instead of the traditional Land of Sweets, and are received by a cast of sugary delicacies replaced by “Alice in Wonderland” characters.
There, the classic Spanish dancers are, instead, red roses. The Russian dancers are cards. Mother Ginger is The Caterpillar. The Marzipan dancers are flamingos and the Arabian dancer is the Cheshire Cat.
“It’s very cool the way it lined up,” Shumway said. “With any fairy tale, it’s really about the good versus evil. ‘The Nutcracker’ really is like a fairy tale, and they line up pretty well.”
But sometimes, the holiday season is far from a fairy tale itself, which was the jumping-off point for “Holiday Spectacular: East Meets West,” the newest production from Our Fabulous Variety Show (OFVS) and its first-ever partnership with the Arts Academy of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC).
“For the opening, we are collaborating on this number that we’ve done before,” OFVS co-founder Kasia Klimiuk said. “It’s called the ‘Cancan Spectacular,’ and it’s like the holiday season gone wrong. It’s little vignettes and tableaus of Joseph and Mary, and we have a Santa Claus and his elves, we have some parents shopping with their kids, and it depicts the different aspects of the holiday season and how wonderful they can be, and also how stressful and crazy they can get.”
Staging Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, the new holiday spectacular marks the East Hampton-based troupe’s inaugural tour and collaboration with another major arts organization — a coup that will feature 50 performers singing, dancing and acting in skits, variety show style.
“It’s a lot less stress because it’s mostly numbers that we’ve done,” OFVS co-founder Anita Boyer said. “It’s our legacy numbers, so we haven’t had to do as much as far as rehearsal, because everyone who is performing in them has done it before. It’s fun to see the new batch of kids being inducted into certain numbers that they’ve been watching since they were 5 or 6, and now they’re 10, 11, 12, and they’re old enough to do the dances and they’re really excited for it to be their turn to be a part of it. That has been my favorite part of rehearsals: watching our littles become not so little.
Graduating into more challenging roles is a major component of HBTS’s “Nutcracker” model, explained Strickland, who double-cast her two seniors — Samantha Prince and Devon Friedman — as the pinnacle Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by guest artists James Stevko and Nick Peregrino as Cavalier.
“Sugar Plum is the highest-level role in the Nutcracker,” Strickland said. “They are extremely beautiful dancers and also confident young people. This is going to be a peak performance for them because they have literally done all the roles in the ballet, from Clara up to Sugar Plum, and a lot in between. For them to do it their senior year, it’s very special.”
For Strickland, as well as over 100 cast members, parents and volunteers, months of rehearsal, preparation and the final grueling push all lead up to the week of the show — and the magic that comes with “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s a really nice week. The kids love it, and I love it, too. It’s what I work toward,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the theme of ‘The Nutcracker’ and the holidays, and it’s all about family — and Hampton Ballet Theatre School is like a big family.”
The Hampton Ballet Theatre School will present its 11th annual production of “The Nutcracker” on Friday, December 6, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Additional performances will stage on Saturday, December 7, at 1 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 8, at 2 p.m. Advance tickets range from $20 to $45, or $25 to $50 at the door. For more information, call 631-237-4810 or visit hamptonballettheatreschool.com.
Studio 3 will present “Mixed Nuts” on Friday, December 13, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Additional performances will be held on Saturday, December 14, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, December 15, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit dancestudio3.com.
Our Fabulous Variety Show presents “Holiday Spectacular: East Meets West” on Friday, December 6, at 7 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Additional performances will be held on Saturday, December 7, at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.