My 4-year-old daughter, with her fine blonde hair falling naturally into ringlets over her shoulders, stares at the studio full of dancers, completely enchanted. A man with a full head of completely white hair stands “onstage,” engaged in the “party” going on around him. Ballerinas in young adulthood make tremendous leaps, going from one side of the room to the other in what seems like a single bound. And tiny little girls-as-mice, not more than a year or two older than my own child, twirl and tippy-toe with the exuberance of youth, of dance, of Christmas. For these dancers — and for so many fans of dance — it wouldn’t be that special time of year if not for “The Nutcracker.” And with the return of “The Nutcracker” to the revamped Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock, that sense of tradition delves even deeper.
Ballet Arkansas, the professional dance company that produces “The Nutcracker” each year in collaboration with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1978 by Lorraine Cranford, a former professional dancer who’d hoofed it in shows with famous folks like George M. Cohan and Gene Kelly. But Ballet Arkansas can trace its roots even further back to the Little Rock Civic Ballet, founded by Lorraine’s husband in 1966, which began annually featuring perhaps this most well-known ballet ever, set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score.
Over the years, Ballet Arkansas has provided many remarkable opportunities for both dancers and general members of the Little Rock community. In 1983, Mikhail Baryshnikov performed with the company. In 1992, the organization received the Stream Award from the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association for its artistic excellence. And now, with the relocation of the company to the Creative Corridor on Main Street, the public has the opportunity to see just how the company works with Ballet Arkansas’s monthly Bag Lunch Ballet.
“Get a little entertainment and learn about the ballet!” Laura Hood Babcock, artistic associate of Ballet Arkansas, says of the program. “People bring their own lunch — it’s not a big space, so we do need reservations — and they can see us as we’re in rehearsal. I think people are very impressed with the raw athleticism ballet requires. We practice and make it look easy in performance, but it’s not. People can see what their ticket money is going to.”
That ticket money goes to everything from choreography to backstage crew members to pointe shoes, which can cost up to $100 a pair, with the typical dancer needing an average of 25 pairs of shoes each year; a primary dancer can go through as many as four pairs just during the week of “The Nutcracker.” And let’s not forget the cost of employing professional dancers. “We’re now the state’s foremost professional ballet company,” Babcock asserts. “We used to be made up of students. We’ve switched that model in the last eight or nine years to full-time company dancers of professional caliber who are professionally trained.”
But professional dancers look best in a professional space, and Ballet Arkansas’s return to the Robinson Center is ushering a new and exciting time for both the company and the production. “This is the first year that the major roles will all be performed by our company’s dancers,” Babcock explains. “In the past, Ballet Arkansas would bring in guest artists, but now we’ve grown to the point with the artistry of our dancers that we don’t have to. We are bringing in what we call guest trainees, and those are young dancers — not professional dancers yet — but their caliber is more than that of just student dancers.”
Just as Ballet Arkansas knows that its audience makes a tradition of seeing “The Nutcracker” every year, the company also honors that tradition by retaining a conventional approach to the ballet’s interpretation. “There won’t be big changes,” Babcock assures. “We won’t be doing anything significantly different as far as the production goes; we’ve kept the traditional Victorian style and traditional choreography. We have the choir that sings with the snowflakes and Mother Ginger that comes out with the little girls in her skirt.”
In fact, it’s the sense of tradition that not only attracts the audiences, but also the hundreds of community cast members involved with “The Nutcracker” each year. Danny Wood, this year’s butler, first joined “The Nutcracker” 24 years ago when his daughter danced as a tiny angel. He hoped that when she was old enough, he would get to play father to his daughter’s Clara; unfortunately, a double heel break ended his daughter’s dancing career before his dream could come true. But four years ago, his daughter got cast as a party parent, and Wood began his tenure as the butler. “My dream to dance with her came true,” Wood says. “And I can tell you, she was the only party parent the butler kissed the hand of.” Wood hopes one day his grandson will be a party boy and he’ll get to dance with him, too. “Christmas, for me, is always ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” Wood explains. “I go into a store and hear the music and want to get in position.”
Vedra Davenport-Booher, the costumer for the production, couldn’t agree more. “It makes the holidays for me,” Davenport-Booher says. “The most exciting thing is those little kids — they’re so excited! They love it so much. It’s just not Christmas until you see ‘The Nutcracker.'”
“The Nutcracker” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, and Sunday, Dec. 11. Ballet Arkansas will have a boutique with “Nutcracker” apparel, ornaments, souvenirs and, of course, nutcrackers in a variety of styles for sale. For more information and tickets, visit balletarkansas.org/tickets. Box seats are available by calling the ASO box office at 666-1761.