Nutcracker returns to the Englert


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At a dress rehearsal on Tuesday evening, young dancers dressed in leotards and tights swarmed the aisles of the Englert Theatre, practicing their movements before the run-through began.

As the dancers for the first act were called backstage, an excited communal chatter spread through the crowd. But as soon as the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, they fell silent. The young dancers waited for their turn to go onstage and watched their fellow cast members perform the opening scene.

Beginning Friday, the dancers will put on four performances of the Nutcracker this weekend at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. There will be two performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and two matinee performances at 2 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 4.

For months, ballet dancers at the Nolte Academy of Dance in Coralville have practiced seven days a week for up to eight hours a day in preparation for their performance.

The Nutcracker is perhaps the best-known ballet. Because of this, various dance companies interpret it in different styles every year. The Nolte Academy will perform a traditional version of the ballet.

"It is part of keeping ballet in its true form," said Leslie Nolte, the head of the academy. "Over the last five years — and in the future, we will continue to choose the classical, traditional form. If you have a version that is done right and is beautiful, you don't have to change it."

The ballet has been a holiday tradition for dance companies worldwide. This will be the fifth year the Nolte Academy will put on the production, a tradition that company owner Nolte brought to the area.

When she began her dance academy, a traveling professional company came to Iowa City to perform the Nutcracker every five to seven years, she said.

"Since starting the Nutcracker, the cake keeps getting bigger every year," she said. "We have a machine of a team; if any one person out of our six left, things would be really difficult."

One of the six instrumental members of Nolte's Nutcracker team is Grace Snider, the director of the ballet. Her professional dance career began when she was 16 at the Houston Ballet Academy, but she danced in her first Nutcracker when she was 5.

"During Nutcracker, the run was 56 shows," she said. "I always looked forward to it because I knew I would dance more in those weeks than any other time of the year. The multitude of shows was an opportunity to dance more and really focus on perfection."

Since moving from dancer to choreographer, Snider's view of the Nutcracker has changed — but only slightly.

"It is certainly different for me, but only because the opportunities Nutcracker provides are for my students now," she said. "I enjoy passing on to them what I learned from this ballet, the way people enjoy passing a family heirloom to their children. It was special to have but even more special to give."

The dancers in the Nolte Academey's production of the Nutcracker range from ages 6 to 18, with roles from baby mice to sugar plum fairies. Nolte said she sees value in passing along the tradition of the ballet to a younger generation.

"Keeping it alive is very important," she said. "Dancers alongside of classical music and the dreamy, lovey magical story are something that everybody needs. The hour in the theater watching the performance is something that cannot be lost. Our youth have to be reminded that it feels good to be affected by something that is live and onstage. There is still magic to be found in everybody's heart."

Nolte said residents of Iowa City and surrounding areas will be amazed at the skill of the young dancers. It is a professional level of talent that the dancers in the Nutcracker have because of Snider, her staff, and herself.

"If our dancers choose to, they could dance professionally," Nolte said. "And when I think about the educational experiences that dancers need if they want to become professionals, the Nutcracker is one of those experiences."

A major aspect that makes the Nolte Academy's production stand out from others in the state is the accompaniment of an orchestra conducted by Carey Bostian.

He said that musically, the ballet is a masterpiece.

"The first act is 45 minutes of continuous music," he said. "It is very challenging musically — it's just amazing."

He also stressed the importance of dancers performing with a orchestra.

"In terms of an artistic experience, there is no substitute for dancing with live music," he said. "Most productions of the Nutcracker around the state are done with canned music. There is nothing like the responsiveness and the excitement of really having collaboration with the music. [The composer] intended the music to respond to the dance and for the dance to respond to the music. It's really an irreplaceable and rare opportunity."

The orchestra also enhances the audience's experiences, because there is nothing like the energy of a symphony orchestra, Bostian said.

"Being involved in this production and seeing the growth of the great student dancers year after year, as well as the development of the company, are incredibly rewarding," he said.

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