Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Three ballet companies around Virginia on their Nutcracker performances.

The Nutcracker by Richmond Ballet.

Photo by Sarah Ferguson

A German story. A Russian composer. A Virginia tradition. Across the Commonwealth this Christmas season, performances of The Nutcracker beckon not just to balletomanes, but to anyone who smiles at the sound of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s tinkling harbinger of the Sugar Plum Fairy. “The quality and spirit of each company varies, but everyone involved in the phenomenon is joined together by Tchaikovsky’s score,” writes dance historian Jennifer Fisher in her book Nutcracker Nation. In advance of the 2019 season, we talked to choreographers and performers from three companies about the classic ballet.

Charlottesville Ballet

Nanae Matsushima and Derek Lauer perform in Charlottesville Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Photo by Meridith de Avila Khan

In 2007, Sara Clayborne and Emily Hartka, alumnae of the Richmond Ballet, founded Charlottesville Ballet with a unique DIY structure: The dancers would perform, teach, and receive six-month contracts, but they would also pitch in to run the place.

Last year, the 15-member company became a resident artist at the newly restored Academy Center for the Arts, where it performed The Nutcracker with the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra and Cantate Children’s Chorus. “We sold out. It was amazing,” says Cassidy Burk, a dancer who doubles as communications coordinator. “It’s such a beautiful theater. Being on that big stage, and being named resident dance company, was a huge step for us.” 

The Charlottesville Ballet’s production is mostly traditional but with a few peppermint twists: The Russian dance is performed by dancers twirling ribbons like gymnasts, and the Arabian dancers are all women. As in Roanoke, community members play party guests of all ages, including “Serious Grandma” and “Fun Grandma.”

The company’s season began in September, and by the second week in the studio, the dancers were already working with children who had been cast as snowflakes, sheep, gingerbread, and more. “We start right away,” Burk says. “We’ll be on it. We’ll be ready to go.” 

The Academy Center of the Arts, Lynchburg, Dec. 14-15; Piedmont Virginia Community College, Charlottesville, Dec. 19-22. CharlottesvilleBallet.org

Maggie Small and Thomas Ragland of the Richmond Ballet.

Photo by Sarah Ferguson

The Richmond Ballet

Stoner Winslett’s first Nutcracker, back in 1980, was a Christmas miracle. “If someone said to me now, with 40 years of experience, that I had two months [to create a Nutcracker] but no choreography, and no costumes, I would say, ‘Sorry, that’s not possible,’” says the artistic director of Richmond Ballet with a laugh. 

For 11 days in December, 28 professional dancers, 31 company trainees, and nearly 210 children dance in the Richmond Ballet’s The Nutcracker while Richmond Symphony Orchestra plays Tchaikovsky’s score at the Carpenter Theatre. Since 2012, the dancers and musicians have also loaded into buses and previewed their show—featuring an entirely different set of children—at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.

“It’s a lot of people,” Winslett says. But the rewards are worth it, especially when she celebrates the evolving careers of dancers who start as mice, grow into Claras, and in a few cases, eventually become professional Sugar Plum Fairies. “That’s so fun, to see their growth,” Winslett says. “That’s part of the magic.”

Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, Dec. 7-9; Dominion Energy Center, Richmond, Dec. 14-23. RichmondBallet.com

The Nutcracker by Southwest Virginia Ballet.

Photo by McDilda Photography

Southwest Virginia Ballet

Pedro Szalay retired from the Richmond Ballet in 2006 and within a year became artistic director of Roanoke’s Southwest Virginia Ballet. Venezuelan-born Szalay calls the Christmas ballet “a beautiful tradition.”

Szalay has built a Nutcracker with around 170 performers. About 50 older students perform with his company throughout the year, but Szalay opens Nutcracker auditions to children in the community, including students who have taken his classes in local public schools. Those he picks have a chance to play angels, mice, soldiers, and reindeer onstage. 

Yes, reindeer. In Szalay’s version, Dasher and Dancer pull Clara’s sleigh through the Land of the Suites. His Nutcracker also features several dozen adult volunteers performing as guests at the Act I party scene. “People live for The Nutcracker,” Szalay says. “We have lawyers, doctors, and TV anchors. But when they come to rehearsals, they look like professional dancers. It is so great to have so much community involvement.”

Berglund Center, Roanoke, Dec. 14-15. SVBallet.org

More Nutcracker Performances

Metropolitan School of the Arts, Dec. 7 & 8, Alexandria, MetropolitanArts.org

Manassas Ballet Theatre, Dec. 18-23, Manassas, ManassasBallet.org

The Virginia Ballet Company, Dec. 27-29, Fairfax, VaBallet.org


This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue.

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