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Sugar Plum Fairy returns to Robinson

After missing a year onstage because of the pandemic, Ballet Arkansas’ company and community cast members are eager and excited to once again perform “The Nutcracker” live this weekend at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall.

The ballet company’s more than four-decade tradition showed up in 2020 as a drive-by event, with company dancers pantomiming and engaged in modified dance sequences on a parking lot at Sixth and Main streets, a short distance from the company’s offices and studios.

This year, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier will once again tread Tchaikovsky’s measures in the 2,200-seat hall as the company’s 14 professional dancers and a couple of hundred child and adult community cast members take the stage with members of the the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Geoffrey Robson providing accompaniment in the pit.

“The dancers are eager to be back onstage,” says Michael Fothergill, the ballet company’s executive and artistic director. “There’s a lot of excitement to rejoin the symphony, the choir [Mount St. Mary Academy has, in the past, supplied the singers for the first-act snow scene] and there’s a lot of octane on stage.”

In the interim, “We updated a lot of things,” Fothergill says, including many of the set pieces and some of the big sequences — the first-act snow scene, the second-act “Waltz of the Flowers,” the Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier grand pas de deux and some of the second-act national variations. The battle between the Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King, which in the past was pretty much stylized, is now a formal sword fight with actual fight choreography, Fothergill says.

“We’re giving the community cast members more opportunities,” he explains, noting that audiences will see more of the local and/or younger performers in the Spanish, Russian, Chinese, French and Arabian variations, which have previously focused “mostly for our stronger dancers.”

New this year is a lighter addition to the schedule: two performances of “The Nutty Nutcracker,” which augments the original ballet with a high level of high jinks.

  photo  Ballet Arkansas company members Leah Morris (from left), Hannah Bradshaw and Isabelle Urben rehearse for “The Nutcracker” at Shuffles & Ballet II in west Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
 Staci R Vandagriff 
 
 
“Coming back from the pandemic, we thought laughter would be an important element to feature,” explains the ballet company’s associate artistic director, Catherine Fothergill.

The original story focuses on young Clara Stahlbaum, who discovers, or possibly dreams, that the nutcracker she’s received as a Christmas gift from her mysterious uncle comes to life, defends her from an army of rodents and escorts her through a snowy landscape to the Land of the Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy and inhabited by dancers who perform a series of national variations and/or glorify various forms of sweetness (including marzipan and gingerbread).

This version starts with the hypothesis that the Mouse King, not the Nutcracker Prince, has won the sword fight, whereupon “the space/time continuum opens up” to admit “contemporary, non-traditional characters,” Michael Fothergill explains.

The Fothergills don’t want to give away any surprises, and they have avoided “hot-button political issues,” but they do admit, “Definitely these are characters whom people will recognize.”

Actor Brett Ihler doubles as the between-scenes narrator and as the Mouse King. There are some minor changes to the score, and there won’t be live-music accompaniment. The Fothergills say they are hoping to make it an annual event.

“‘The Nutcracker’ brings such joy to so many people,” Michael Fothergill says. “That’s important and needed just now.”

“The Nutcracker”

  • What: Ballet Arkansas stages Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s classic Christmas-set ballet, with a cast that includes its 14 company members, a community cast of 200+ children and adults and, in the pit, members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra with Geoffrey Robson conducting.
  • Where: Robinson Center Performance Hall, 426 W Markham St. at Broadway, Little Rock
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: $20-$99 (top price is for best-in-house “sweet seats” and include a gift)
  • Information: (501) 244-8800; balletarkansas.org/tickets

“The Nutty Nutcracker”

  • What: Tchaikovsky’s ballet told from the perspective of the Mouse King, filled with family-friendly high jinks and a bit of balletic goofing around.
  • Where: Robinson Center Performance Hall
  • When: 7:30 p.m. today, 6 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: $30-$60
  • Information: (501) 244-8800; balletarkansas.org/tickets

 Gallery: Nutty Nutcracker Rehearsal


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