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Dayton Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ creates enduring holiday memories

This version of beloved classic retires after 2023 production.

The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance’s presentation of Dayton Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” will heighten the merriment and wonder of the holiday season Dec. 8-17 at the Schuster Center.

Featuring Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous, vibrant score performed live by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, “The Nutcracker” weaves a charming tale of adventure, beauty, family and fun. When Clara and her mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer travel to the whimsical Land of Sweets, they are met by mischievous rats, brave soldiers, the Sugar Plum Fairy and a dashing Cavalier, among others.

The production consists of more than 125 local children from Dayton Ballet School (DBS) and other area ballet schools who make up the cast of colorful characters such as soldiers, rats, party children and lambs. Children’s roles began rehearsals as early as October.

The role of Clara is shared between two young dancers, Aimee Besl and Rebecca Perry. Both study at DBS and are members of the Dayton Ballet School Ensemble. Dayton Ballet Company members alternate performing more prominent roles in the ballet, such as Isaac Jones (Uncle Drosselmeyer and Cavalier), Patrick Lennon (Uncle Drosselmeyer and Snow King) and Katy Gilliam (Snow Queen and Dew Drop Fairy).

The role of the Nutcracker alternates between seasoned company member Harrison Broadbent and a new dancer to the company, Kyan Park. New company members Jalen Wiliams and Nicolas Bierwagen are double cast as the Rat King. Claire Bergman reprises her role as Sugar Plum Fairy and Belle Urban will make her Dayton Ballet “Nutcracker” debut in that role.

“It has been wonderful working with our dancers in the studio,” said Dayton Ballet Artistic Director Brandon Ragland in a news release. “Whether it’s their first professional ‘Nutcracker’ or their 15th, our company dancers embrace the spirit of the show, knowing they play an integral role in generations of family holiday traditions.”

In addition, this version of “The Nutcracker,” choreographed and conceptualized by Karen Russo Burke, premiered in 2013 and will retire after this year’s performances. Organizers say company members have been working diligently in the studio, perfecting Russo Burke’s choreography to ensure this production ends on a high note.

“I’ve enjoyed working with Karen as we fine-tuned her choreography for its final performances,” Ragland added. “Rest assured, I have already been creating and planning a refreshed version to premiere in 2024 and look forward to creating more precious holiday memories for our community.”

As the Dayton Ballet bids farewell to this version of the beloved classic, here is a look back at some of the talented artists who graced the show in key roles within the production.


Role: The Nutcracker in the 2021 production.

What do you recall the most from your role?: Having fun with all the kids and toy soldiers right before battle scene. Trying to get them excited and ready to be on stage.

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes? Mrs. Karen was very good at making sure my battle scene was clean and keeping the connection with the Rat King. I loved how she was always adapting the fight part to make it more interesting and cohesive.

Why do you feel this ballet remains a holiday hallmark?: The year I was Nutcracker was the company’s first year back since COVID. There was definitely a moment of gratitude and magic after not doing it for a year, and I thank Mrs. Karen for being that back for all of us. “The Nutcracker” is definitely a tradition for dancers as much as it is for the audience who sees it every year.

What are you doing now?: I’m about to do my first “Nutcracker” with State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, California. I’ll be debuting as Snow King and the Nutcracker. We will take the shows to five different cities along the West Coast.


Role: The Nutcracker in the 2018 and 2019 productions.

What do you recall the most from your role?: I remember being very excited to participate in “The Nutcracker” in a professional role. I vividly remember working very closely with Paul Gilliam to perfect all of the details of the role, as well as all of my other cast interactions.

What was your favorite aspect of the role?: I really enjoyed the battle scene. I love mock battles and swinging a sword around.

What do you hope audiences take away from this final version?: The joy that the audience had watching, and the fun that all of the dancers had putting on the performance. Even as things draw to a close, the magic will continue, even if it is in a new form entirely as we move on to the next version of “The Nutcracker.”

What are you doing now?: Doing undergrad at Swarthmore College with a double major in computer science and Japanese.


Role: The Nutcracker in the 2019 production, the first time a female performer was cast in the role in Dayton Ballet history.

What do you recall the most from your role?: I recall the impact being the first female Nutcracker had on kids who came to the show. I had little girls come up to me after the show so excited and inspired, and it really made the whole experience for me.

What was your favorite and most challenging aspect of the role?: The most challenging part was definitely dancing in the Nutcracker head — something we don’t give the guys enough credit for! My favorite part of the role was being able to make it my own because no one had ever done it before.

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes?: Karen really helped recreate the role so that it fit a female dancer. She helped shape my relationship with Clara, making it a sisterly love that really read from the audience.

What are you doing now?: I have been retired now for almost a year and a half and am in my first semester of nursing school.


Role: Clara in the 2014 and 2015 productions at the ages of 13 and 14.

What was your favorite aspect of the role?: Clara is such a strong young woman! Playing her was so fun and a huge challenge for me. I was not the kind of girl who would run up to a sword-bearing rat and throw a shoe at him — I was so shy. Being Clara helped me find confidence in my own self. Embodying her spunk and liveliness allowed me to find parts of myself I had never known before.

Why do you feel this ballet is a holiday hallmark?: I started dancing in “The Nutcracker” when I was 5 years old, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I think there’s something everyone can relate to within the story. This story reminds us there are little bits of magic in our lives, even if we can only see it in falling snow or little wooden dolls.

What are you doing now?: I recently graduated cum laude from Denison University with a degree in theatre and environmental studies. I’m currently serving with AmeriCorps for a year, and I’ll be starting at NYU Gallatin as a master’s student studying directing and dramatic writing in the fall.


Role: Clara in the 2012 and 2013 productions at the ages of 13 and 14.

What do you recall the most from your experience?: It was such a fun experience! I remember rehearsing with the professional company, spending time with my friends from dance class, the magic of backstage, Christmas in downtown Dayton, and the excitement of being on stage. I also loved the costumes!

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes?: The most memorable note for me was that I needed to project my expressions and movements so that someone in the back row of the audience could see what I was doing.

Why do you feel this ballet is a holiday hallmark?: I grew up performing in “Nutcracker” every year. My siblings performed in “Nutcracker” too, so it was a big event for my whole family. I was a mouse in my first show and a flower in my last show. For us, it is a Christmas staple. I think it is enjoyable for all ages to watch and it adds to the magic of the holiday season.

What are you doing now?: I am a student in the biostatistics Ph.D program at UC San Diego.


Role: Sugar Plum Fairy in the 2016 and 2018 productions.

What do you recall the most from your role? My greatest memory is the first time on stage as Sugar Plum, feeling the quiet anticipation of the audience as the orchestra played the first few notes of my variation. The music is so iconic, and it felt like you could hear a pin drop in the Schuster. A thought flashed across my mind of “I’m really doing this!” I suddenly felt a complete sense of calm as I went on to dance and enjoyed every minute of it.

What was your favorite or most challenging aspect of the role?: Sugar Plum Fairy is so incredibly challenging because of the technique and stamina it takes. My favorite dancing moment is the pas de deux, looking across the stage as I walked toward my partner and knowing that we were really “in it” together. Another favorite aspect is interacting with all the children on stage. The students look up to all the company dancers but when they see you as THE Sugar Plum Fairy it feels a little extra special to experience their excitement and share the moment with them.

Why do you feel this ballet is a holiday hallmark?: I didn’t grow up dancing “The Nutcracker” as a kid, so I never got sick of it once I finally started performing it professionally. I still love it to this day. I think “The Nutcracker” appeal has a lot to do with nostalgia. Whether people danced in it as a kid or their parents took them to see it and now as adults, they share that with their own children. It’s a time to look back and reminisce and is a marker of the whole holiday season.

What are you doing now?: I’m dancing with a contemporary ballet company in Denver, Colorado, called Wonderbound.


Role: Clara in the 2021 production at the age of 15.

What was the most challenging aspect of the role?: The most challenging part of my performances was that it was the one year it was performed en pointe. I had been in the party scene other years in other roles, but this was a more technically challenging performance for me and the rest of the student cast. It was so amazing to have been part of that one-time opportunity. Another challenging aspect was it being the year after COVID. There were many challenges due to the virus, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Why do you feel this ballet is a holiday hallmark?: I have always loved “The Nutcracker” with all my heart. I saw “The Nutcracker” with my mom before I was old enough to audition, and I knew right away I wanted to be in it. I love that this show is a holiday tradition for so many families. I see parents and grandparents after the show with their kids all dressed up, and it feels so good to know that I was part of making the holidays special for them.

What are you doing now?: I am a junior at Chaminade Julienne High School and looking into collegiate dance programs. I am also a part of the Dayton Ballet School Ensemble and learning Snow corps, Flower corps and Marzipan in “The Nutcracker” this year.


Role: Sugar Plum Fairy in the 2013-2020 productions.

What do you recall the most from your role? The Sugar Plum Fairy role holds a special place in my memories. “Nutcracker” season usually meant you start sewing your pointe shoes in September and go through at least 10 pairs by the end of “Nutcracker” shows. Beyond the physical demands of perfecting the movements and the technique, what stands out the most is the mental preparation. Representing the company and conveying the storyline through my artistry added a unique pressure. The responsibility of upholding the show’s quality were always at the forefront of my mind. How I navigated and embraced this pressure became an integral part of my growth as a professional dancer.

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes?: Yes, the art of breathing. Seems like a very simple thing to do, but it often becomes a forgotten detail that just makes everything better.

Have there been any lessons learned from your experience that are still vital to you years later?: Yes, absolutely. The ability to work with a team and how everyone involved in the production brings something valuale to the table. Learning from other artists and working together to create a good outcome.

What are you doing now? I graduated with a bachelor’s in business administration from Wright State, and later became a broker/Realtor with RE/MAXUnited in Raleigh, North Carolina.


Role: Sugar Plum Fairy in the 2004-2018 productions.

What was your favorite or most challenging aspect of the role?: My favorite aspect of the role was literally just dancing to the most beautiful music! The Grand Pas music is gorgeous! The most challenging part of the role was waiting to perform at the very end of the entire ballet and keeping my nerves at bay.

Have there been any lessons learned from your experience that are still vital to you years later?: A lesson or practice from performing is to always stay in the present. You can get really down on yourself for something that didn’t go well and keep thinking about it, which will put you in a negative spiral. While performing, you have to let the mishap go and stay focused on what you are doing. That is a practice that I still work on every day now.

What are you doing now? I’m working in the medical field.


Role: Clara in the 2017 production at the age of 13.

What was your favorite aspect of the role?: My favorite aspect of the role was being able to take on such an innocent and joyful role. I felt like I could truly be a kid again.

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes?: I remember Karen always saying if you feel like your being big enough be bigger! She prioritized portraying the story to the audience through big gestures and acting, which was such a fun aspect of the role.

Have there been any lessons learned from your experience that are still vital to you years later?: I really was able to take a deeper dive into what it’s like to portray a story through my dancing. There is something more than just the physicality of dancing that gives it beauty, which is where passion and emotion come into play.

What are you doing now? I am now in my second year of undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. I am in their ballet program as well as majoring in exercise science.


Role: Clara in the 2018 production at the age of 14.

Do you recall any memorable directorial notes?: The role of Clara pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was least comfortable with my acting skills going into the role. Miss Karen encouraged me through our rehearsals and made sure I became comfortable with acting alongside the dancing.

What do you hope audiences take away from this final version?: I want the audience to remember specific moments/changes this production has gone through over the years. From losing a year of “Nutcracker” to having a complete change in the production to accommodate COVID-19 protocols. I believe each and every version of this production had its own unique characteristics and memorable moments that I cherish and appreciate.

What are you doing now?: I am now studying at the University of Washington and planning to major in civil engineering.

Read the full article at dayton.com