For exactly 120 years, the Christmas season has been made magical for a great many fortunate people of all ages by the great Christmas ballet of Piotyr Tchaikovsky, "Nutcracker."
The ballet uses magical music with harps and tinkling celestes, and all the wonderful colors of the orchestra to accompany scenes of toys come to life and dancing sugar plums, and dozens more such events from a child's Christmas fantasies.
On Friday and Saturday of the coming week, audiences at the Reg Lenna Civic Center will have a chance to see the magical holiday ballet and have the pleasure of watching area residents of many ages from tiny pre-schoolers to well-grown adults have a wonderful time, and yet perform with discipline and grace. That is thanks to the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet.
Erica Pereira (left) and Daniel Ulbricht (right), a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, will perform next weekend in Jamestown at the Reg Lenna Civic Center in the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet's production of 'Nutcracker.'
What's more, we'll have the chance to see two of the finest professional dancers in the world perform, live here in town, choreography by one of the greatest creators of dancers who has ever lived, the great George Balanchine.
Erica Pereira, a soloist with the New York City Ballet will dance the starring role in the Jamestown production of the dance classic, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her cavalier - or in layman's terms, the man who dances with her, lifts her and supports her in the demands of her role, while performing demanding steps of his own - will be Daniel Ulbricht, who is a principal dancer with the New York-based company. A principal dancer is the highest-ranking position in a dance company.
It's not always easy to teach people the importance of the previous paragraph. Two of the finest dancers in what may be the finest company in the world are coming to our town to share their talents and their skills. The closest I can come is this: Imagine Lebron James and Peyton Manning were coming to town, not only to speak and make personal appearances, but to actually play their respective games with talented locals and to show us first-hand the natural gifts mixed with disciplined training which have brought them to the pinnacle of their areas of expertise. The experiences are genuinely comparable in significance.
Let me tell you some basics about the CRYB performances, then share with you some of the things I've learned from talking with an alumna of the Jamestown company who will be dancing an important solo in the coming performances, and then some things I learned from a conversation in New York City with Ulbricht, himself.
Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet is a Jamestown-based company and training program with programs of all levels of difficulty - from introductory programs for those who have never danced before up through pre-professional programs - which has produced a number of professional dancers and an even larger number of dancers who have studied dance in the major dance programs in American colleges and universities.
The artistic director of the program is Monika Alch. A native of Austria, Ms. Alch began to study dance in Vienna at the age of 4. She has studied with such teachers as Anatole Dolin and Jerome Robbins and as a colleague with Erich Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev. This is her 12th year of association with the company.
There will be three performances of "Nutcracker," this year. A performance intended only for students in area schools will be performed Friday morning at the Civic Center, and admission is only through pre-arrangements with the company by principals or teachers. Students from the CRYB company will dance the principal roles in the ballet at the student performance.
The public performances, at which the professional dancers will perform, will be Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. Tickets for both performances range in price from $12 to $25, and they may be purchased through the box office of the Reg Lenna Civic Center. You can do that by telephone at 484-7070, or by computer by going to the company's website at www.cryb.net, and clicking on the link that says "Order tickets here."
If you haven't seen a local production of the ballet, the quality of the scenery and the costumes will certainly amaze you. The only thing "small town" about this production is the fact that it will take place in one.
One of the reasons these annual dance extravaganzas are so successful has been the willingness of the company's alumni to return and perform with the young dancers with whom they once studied.
This year's returnees will include Brittany Bush. She returns to Jamestown from Boston, where she is currently studying with the Jose Mateo Ballet. She graduated in June from the State University of New York at Purchase, the proximity of which to New York City has made it possible for that branch of the state university to specialize in the performing arts, and to attract professional directors, producers, and performing artists, both to teach on its faculty and to attend student performances, from which they occasionally hire students to perform in their professional companies.
This year, Ms. Bush will be dancing one of the variations from the second act of the ballet.
"Nutcracker" is based upon a short story by famed German author E.T.A. Hoffman. In the first act, a wealthy family is holding a Christmas party in their large home. The family's daughter, Clara, is given a gift by her magical godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer. The gift is a lifelike nutcracker, painted to resemble a soldier.
When the guests depart, Clara sneaks back downstairs to play more with her gifts and falls asleep at the foot of the Christmas tree. When the clock strikes midnight, the tree grows to a giant height. The house's mice invade the living room, planning to feast on leftover food from the party and to chew upon the toys.
Clara's nutcracker comes magically to life and leads the toys in a brave defense against the mice, although he falls afoul of the Mouse King and is in danger of being killed. Clara makes an attack on the Mouse King, which enables the Nutcracker to defeat him. He rewards her for her bravery by placing her in a magic sleigh and taking her off through the forests and the snow to a magical Kingdom of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The second act begins as the Nutcracker describes for the fairy's subjects the battle with the mice. The fairy welcomes Clara and orders her subjects to perform colorful and energetic dances for her entertainment. Each dance celebrates one of the tasty sweets from the kingdom and also the nation from which that sweet is obtained.
Ms. Bush will be dancing the Arabian dance, which represents the treat of coffee.
She said recently that she danced with the CRYB company from the age of 6 until 17, whereupon she graduated from high school and left for college.
"I feel as though I should be one of the students here, although I guess I'm an adult guest artist," she said.
I wonder if her dancing will be similar to the Arabian dances which were done when she was a student in the company, and she says it will not.
"For many years, the Arabian variation was a duet performed by a man and a woman. A few years ago, Monika Alch found a version of the dance which involved a female soloist, dancing with four young corps members, and she has introduced that into the production," she explained.
She said she and her four corps members have been studying an aging videotape of the variation to reinforce their knowledge of the exotic dance.
"It feels a bit strange to be able to just concentrate on my one role," Ms. Bush told me. "All the years I was a student, each of us performed many different roles, and we needed to rush off stage the moment we finished a dance to change our costume in order to rush back on and perform the next role on our list."
Asked to describe the life of a young dancer, Ms. Bush admits that there is very little time for anything but dance. "I don't have time for a social life at this point," she said. "I've found that there are so many people who want to have a career in dance and far fewer opportunities to do it, that in order to have any hope of succeeding it's necessary to practice and to rehearse and to attend costume fittings and photography sessions, and to live for dance."
What will be her routine when she returns to Boston?
"I'll need to audition and hope to be hired by a professional company," she said. "Between January and March, most of the world's ballet companies hold auditions. Dancers can only usually perform for a very few years, so there are always openings turning up. Also, injuries are very common among dancers, and if the person dancing an important role suffers an injury, the company needs someone else to fill that role on very little notice."
Does she regret having given over her entire life to dance?
"I don't regret it for a moment. Many people never get the chance to do what they dream of doing, so it's important to at least try when the opportunities arise," she said.
I needed to be in New York City last week. While I was there, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk face-to-face, rather than on the phone, with the gifted young dancer who has come to be such an important element of the arts scene in our area.
I first met Ulbricht when he was only 14 years old. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the artistic director of the Chautauqua Dance Company, had chanced to see a performance by the young Florida-born dancer and had invited him to come to Chautauqua as an apprentice to the adult, professional company he directs.
Now, although still a very young man, Ulbricht is in the middle of his professional career.
"I guess dance years are like dog years. You only get a few of them, so you have to make as much as you can of them, as soon as you can," he says, laughing.
I met the dancer backstage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, where his company was in the process of performing Balanchine's famed production of "Nutcracker." The theater, which for most of its life was known as the New York State Theater, is one of the three giant theaters in Lincoln Center.
Ulbricht is blond and good looking, and dance critics have compared one of his appearances on the stage to the appearance of the sun after a gloomy stretch. Even in casual conversation, he smiles often, and he radiates energy. He is known especially for his powerful leaps, which carry him up over the heads of his fellow dancers.
I wonder whether it doesn't get tiring to perform the same roles in the same ballet year after year. He insists that it doesn't.
"Dancers have to be careful, because productions can easily run together, and we find ourselves wanting to do the steps of another production, when they wouldn't fit into the one we're doing at the moment. But, I find I have two inspirations: the music, which is the master of everything we do, and the fact that we are responsible to the audience. In every single performance we give, there is someone in the audience who hasn't seen ballet before. If we give a spectacular performance, we can set something alive in that person which will lead him to attend ballet over and over, or we can shut down his interest, and he may never attend again," he answered.
Ulbricht said that dancers who have studied the art form their entire lives develop a "muscle memory," in which what their bodies do next is so habitual that they are able to do them without thinking through them, movement by movement. "Balanchine's production of 'Nutcracker' is so perfect, and the movements are in such an ideal progression, that the company can 'put up' a production in a week, if we have to do so," he said.
Typically, a company that decides to present "Nutcracker" spends three months or more, so a one-week turnaround is something of a miracle.
He says that he, himself, "is more of a performer than a rehearser," so as long as he has a good idea of what he's supposed to do, he has little difficulty in finding a way to do that.
I asked about the Jamestown production by CRYB, which he has headlined several times in the past. He said that he finds the Reg Lenna Civic Center to be a beautiful place to perform, where the stagecraft is a support to performers, which is not always true. "Jamestown audiences don't get a lot of dance performances, from what I've gathered, and that always makes me feel responsible to give a little more and to make it as special as possible. Part of a dancer's responsibility is to sell their art form to the audience," he said.
Ulbricht regrets that some of his fellow artists consider their responsibility to end with giving a good performance. He believes that they also have to meet people and smile and sign autographs and answer questions about performing. "If we don't sell the audience on our art form, it could stop existing. Nothing lasts forever," he said.
"'Nutcracker' is a gateway to our art form, especially in our country," he suggests. "In many other countries, classical dance is taught in gym classes, and young people are introduced to classical music and opera and ballet by their parents. Here, those things are treated - by people who ought to know better - as something special and maybe a bit odd.
"But there is something about the way we celebrate Christmas, which makes it OK to take children to see 'Nutcracker,' and the music is extraordinary, and if they see a fine production of it, they often feel that surge of excitement and start thinking they could do that, and eventually that they want to do that," he said.
Ulbricht has been with City Ballet for 13 years, so despite his youth, he is in the middle years of a career.