The Christmas season is now upon us. Of all the commonly-celebrated holidays, Christmas does the most to blend the innovative and the familiar.
One of the most familiar holiday traditions in our community is the annual performance of the ballet ''Nutcracker,'' by the Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet Company. The well-known dance production lights up our community with holiday spirit, and gives a chance to perform on the stage of the Reg Lenna Civic Center, to more than 60 area residents, from preschoolers to those who have been adults for a while.
This week, I'd like to share with you how this year's performance will stand out from the dozens we have enjoyed in the past, and salute the company for its high professional standards and the hundred upon hundreds of hours of skilled labor and talent, which go into creating these high quality productions.
We beg your indulgence with the fact that we have had to write the column well in advance of the performances, and remind you that all of our facts are correct at the time of the writing, but might have changed by the time you read it. Of all the arts, ballet is probably the one which is most susceptible to sudden and unexpected changes of casts, and other elements of performances.
Like Clara and her magical Nutcracker, in the famed ballet, let's share s journey to magic and delight.
The public is invited to enjoy performances of ''Nutcracker'' on Dec. 12 and 13 at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, in downtown Jamestown. Saturday's performance will begin at 8 p.m., while Sunday's begins at 2 p.m.
There will be two additional performances which will be presented only to school children, for whom a field trip to the Civic Center has been arranged, during the school day.
Tickets are $22 for those who wish to sit in the loge. The general public will be charged $15 for seating in the orchestra or the upper balcony, while students, senior citizens, and children can buy tickets in those places for $12.
Purchase tickets in advance at the Civic Center Box Office, in person, or by telephone at 484-7070. You can also purchase tickets by computer at www.reglenna.com/tickets.
If you've never seen the CRYB productions, we are not talking Miss Henrietta's School of Dance, here. This is a very professional production, with full costumes, scenery, etc.
Throughout the years, the productions of ''Nutcracker'' by CRYB have invited a wide range of talented professional dancers from within and outside our community, to perform the most demanding of the roles.
In recent years, brilliant young dancer Daniel Ulbricht, who got a major leg up on his successful career with New York City Ballet at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance, has returned to our area to perform as the Cavalier, who partners the ballet's female lead, the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Each year, Ulbricht has invited a soloist from City Ballet to dance the female lead.
Professional dancer Jordan Spencer, of Warren, who started dancing major roles in the CRYB ''Nutcracker'' as a pre-teen, has often loyally returned to our area to dance major roles for CRYB.
This year, sadly, New York City Ballet will be performing in Washington, D.C., the weekend of Dec. 12 and 13. Spencer will be performing elsewhere, as well.
In their place, the company has found a very young, and very talented young man, to perform the two major roles in this year's production.
Jacob Artist is a senior at Williamsville South High School. He has been dancing since the age of five, and performs with the Classical Ballet of Western New York and its affiliated school, Lockport City Ballet. He recently performed leading roles with the Chautauqua Ballet Company, in last summer's Amphitheater season.
According to Monica Alch, artistic director of CRYB, Artist will dance the title role of the ballet: the magical Nutcracker who comes to life on Christmas Eve, to defend the young girl who received him as a Christmas present from an attack by mice. He will also dance the role of the Cavalier who partners the ballet's leading lady - the Sugar Plum Fairy - as the final climax of the evening.
We recently made the journey to the studios of CRYB, which are located in the carriage house, behind the Sheldon Mansion, at the intersection of Lakeview Ave., and Falconer St. We were able to watch a few of the massive preparations for the upcoming performances, and to chat with the guest artist about his coming performances.
Ironically, while I was able to enjoy three of his Amphitheater performances, last summer, I didn't get to see him dance in the rehearsal. He suffered an injury in the week before the rehearsal I attended, and was ordered not to dance for a period of time, by an orthopedic specialist.
Will he be able to take on the major demands of his roles in mid-December? He assured me there will be no question, he'll be ready.
Jacob Artist is a good looking young man, who is unusually tall for a dancer. When he is sitting in a chair, he could be any teen athlete, wearing jeans and a dark blue T-shirt.
Dancers need to start very young, if they're going to have any kind of career. They don't have the time to develop, that artists in nearly every other field have.
They perform in a profession in which injuries can occur at any time which could stop their careers on a dime. Most professional dancers are used to dancing with pain. They may smile radiantly as they leap and turn, but they rarely feel the freedom and joy which they project to the audience.
I asked about the current injury. He answered, ''I was working with my company in Buffalo, doing a series of simple steps, and my ankle rolled a bit. I thought I had a minor sprain, but when the pain didn't go away, I went to a doctor, and he diagnosed a stress fracture in my ankle.''
The scene I watched in rehearsal was the Christmas party, which begins the ballet. The stage is full of people of all ages, including a large number of children. The plot of the ballet suggests that Clara, the daughter of the party's hosts, receives a large wooden Nutcracker as a gift from her godfather, a magician named Drosselmeyer.
When the guests leave, Clara comes back downstairs to play with her toys, but she it attacked by an army of mice, led by the powerful Rat King. When things look dark for our heroine, her Nutcracker comes to life and duels with the Rat King. The rat nearly wins, but the girl bravely throws her shoe at him, which distracts him long enough that the Nutcracker can prevail.
In gratitude for her help, the Nutcracker dances with Clara, lifting her again and again. Then, he places her in a magic sleigh, and takes her out through the snowflakes - all represented by graceful dancers in white - until they arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets, which is ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The second half of the ballet takes place in the Kingdom of Sweets, as the fairy commands all the delicious treats which she commands to dance for Clara. At the climax of the evening, the fairy herself dances very difficult and demanding steps, partnered by her Cavalier. In this production, Artist will dance both principal male roles.
I watch him do what is called ''marking his part.'' He walks through his movements, not lifting pretty Madeline Jones, who dances the role of Clara, nor actually performing the grand leaps and thrilling turns which he will do during the actual performance. Instead, he makes motions to suggest what he will actually do in performance, and the dancers who will interact with him, make instant adjustments in their movements, to accommodate the fencing moves or the lifting or whatever he will eventually do with them.
Watching young dancers, some of them very young children, concentrate completely and demonstrate the demanding and complex movements of the dance is thrilling, all in itself. In our culture, so many teens are terminally cool, and wouldn't dream of allowing themselves to enter fully into a fanciful tale such as this. How many ''experts'' would give professional testimony that all this learning is more than can be expected of them. Alas.
If one of them pauses, even for an instant, the other dancers around him will pile up, and could be injured. The scene would be ruined.
It's fun to observe the lead dancer. Twice during the period I was at the rehearsal, someone said some version of ''A dancer named Artist. That's funny.''
I watched him smile, failing to detect even a suggestion that he's probably heard that statement a hundred times in the past week, alone. I ask how being a dancer has changed his life.
''Dance takes a lot of time, although I still have time to go to a football game or hang out with my friends,'' he told me. ''Probably the biggest change it has made in me is that I have learned to pick up new things very quickly. It's taught me a lot of discipline and made me learn very fast, and that's useful in just about everything I do.''
In June, when he graduates from high school, what will he do? He answers, ''I'm trying to decide whether to study dance at a college, or to audition for a company right away.'' It occurs to me that he could go to college in five years, but he probably couldn't begin a career as a dancer in five years.
What would be his dream future? He'd like to go to the School of American Ballet, in New York City, and eventually become a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. SAB, was founded by famed choreographer George Balanchine, as a training program for the ballet company, which he also founded.
If company members are injured or additional dancers are needed for a particular ballet, it is not unusual for especially talented students from the school to be introduced into performances by the professional company.
Artist began dance at the age of five. He began performing jazz and tap dances. When he was 12, he was advised the if he had any hope of a career as a dancer, he should study ballet, as it is the root from which all other forms of dance derive.
''I hated it at first,'' he said. ''But, it was so difficult and so full of challenges, I quickly changed that opinion. Now I love it, and I can't imagine not doing it.''
Is it difficult for a high school senior to go to a strange town and be integrated into a company of unfamiliar dancers, in a leading role on whose shoulders rests a great deal of the responsibility for the production's success?
He denies it. ''Monika has gone out of her way to make me feel welcome and to make me part of the CRYB company, and Elizabeth Bush, the company's manager, has been wonderful about knowing what I need and helping me to get it,'' he said.
You can welcome Jacob Artist to Jamestown, and can enjoy a performance which very well may one day lead to a great international career.
Now, let me tell you who, from our community, will be sharing the Civic Center stage with him:
THE REST OF THE COMPANY
I've already told you about Jacob Artist and about Madeline Jones, who will be dancing as Clara. Some dancers will be performing as many as four or five roles, so we'll do our best to name everyone, in his or her largest role. Anyone whose name I leave out is offered my genuine regret. I'm doing the best I can, here.
Monika Alch, in addition to adapting the classic choreography of original choreographers Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa to the needs of the Jamestown stage, will be dancing the role of the Grandmother who is invited to perform a special dance at the party which opens the ballet.
Paul Mockovak, from the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the State University at Fredonia, will perform as Drosselmeyer, the magical godfather.
The role of the Sugar Plum Fairy will be shared by Molly Marsh, Amy Weidert, and Brittney Pearson.
Kym Paterniti will reign in the role of the Rat King.
Len Barry will perform as the vain Mother Ginger, a resident of the Kingdom of Sweets.
Garrett Adams will be Fritz, the bratty brother of poor Clara. Duane Mallaber will appear as her father, and after five times through the cast list, I can't find who will play her mother.