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Behind the scenes at ‘The Nutcracker’

The Pioneer Valley Ballet celebrates the holiday performance’s 40th year

  • Pioneer Valley Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” features more than 250 young dancers from throughout western Massachusetts. Contributed photo/Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • Tom Vacanti, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, helps a dancer as they rehearse for the company’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Vacanti, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with dancers as they rehearse for the company’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rehearsals take place from four to six days a week for some dancers and staff, like Tom Vacanti, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, and teacher Onalie Arts. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Onalie Arts, a teacher and rehearsal mistress at Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with dancers during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Vacanti, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, helps Madison Baptiste of South Hadley, who plays Clara, as they rehearse for the company’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dancers rehearse for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker” in one of the school’s studios at Eastworks in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dancers rehearse for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker” in one the school’s studios at Eastworks in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dancers rehearse for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s 40th annual production of “The Nutcracker” in one the school’s studios at Eastworks in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mother Ginger and her polichinelle in “The Nutcracker.” Contributed photo/Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • Mother Ginger and her polichinelle in “The Nutcracker.” Contributed photo/Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • Co-directors of the Pioneer Valley Ballet, Maryanne Kodzis and Tom Vacanti, tailor the choreography to the strengths of their students each year. Contributed photo/Pioneer Valley Ballet

  • Maryanne Kodzis, right, who is the co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with Remy Gutterman during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maryanne Kodzis, right, first performed in Pioneer Valley Ballet’s “Nutcracker” when she was 6. Now, she’s the company’s co-director. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maryanne Kodzis, right, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with Maria Dean during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maryanne Kodzis, right, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with Remy Gutterman during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maria Dean, from left, Remy Gutterman, Lillian Stern and Zofia Roberts rehearse for Pioneer Valley Ballet’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maryanne Kodzis, top left, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with Lillian Stern, from left, Maria Dean, Zofia Roberts and Remy Gutterman during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maryanne Kodzis, co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, works with a group of students during a rehearsal for the company’s 40th annual performances of “The Nutcracker” in its Eastworks studio. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2018

As the music swelled, the four young female dancers crept up behind the man who was facing the opposite direction, his arms arched above his head. Suddenly, he turned to look at the young women behind him who, clustered together, quickly scuttled backward.

“No, wait, wait — you can’t just run away,” said Maryanne Kodzis, a co-director of Pioneer Valley Ballet, as she moved quickly across the wood floor herself to intercept the dancers. She spread her arms about them, herding them back to the male dancer — her colleague, PVB Co-Director Tom Vacanti — and advised them on the appropriate movement.

“When he turns, you hold — then go,” said Kodzis, who showed what she was looking for. The music was restarted, the dancers inched up behind Vacanti, and when he turned again, Kodzis froze alongside her dancers, who slowly, en pointe, backed away from Vacanti.

“That’s it,” she said. “We do it more gradually.”

Late fall at PVB is “The Nutcracker” time, and on this recent Saturday morning, the school’s advanced dancers, primarily high school students and a few college-age ones, were rehearsing one of the famous ballet’s most important scenes: the moment when the interior of a home at Christmastime suddenly becomes a magical playground, with giant mice and gingerbread soldiers battling each other, a Christmas tree spiraling to the ceiling, and a toy nutcracker transforming into a handsome prince.

“The battle scene, with the mice coming in, the soldiers coming in, the tree growing — that’s always a challenge,” Vacanti said. “There’s all this dramatic music and suddenly there’s 20 people on stage. How do you create that sense that (Clara, the young girl who gets the nutcracker as a Christmas gift) is having this dream, with all these magical things happening? Every year we wrestle with this.”

If PVB has wrestled with the scene, the community dance school and company seems to have done so successfully. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the company’s first performance of “The Nutcracker,” and it’s safe to say Tchaikovsky’s ballet has long become an integral part of the Pioneer Valley’s holiday season, with different generations both watching and performing in the show. The ballet is not just a rite of passage for PVB students but a popular forum for adults in the community, who play some of the quirkier characters such as Mother Ginger, whose giant skirt conceals a whole host of tiny dancers, the Polichinelle (clowns).

And, Kodzis noted, the ballet is also a potential launching pad for scores of children, some as young as 4½ or 5 — the ones who play reindeer, Christmas guests, candy canes, snowflakes and a few other roles. For many of them, “The Nutcracker” represents their first chance to be on a stage and in front of a big crowd.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” Kodzis said. “And sometimes kids can be a little overwhelmed, a little scared, and they don’t make it onto the stage, and that’s OK. Or maybe they don’t make it onto the stage for the first scene, but they see everyone else out there and they make it out for the second scene, and that’s OK, too.

“And,” she added, “you never know what (being in the ballet) is going to spark in somebody. A door can open up. This becomes something they love to do, and we’re able to provide that.”

‘All hands on deck’

Kodzis, who grew up in Florence, speaks from experience. She played a party girl, one of the children at the Christmas party scene that opens the ballet, when she was 6, and from then on she was hooked; she was a PVB student and dancer right up through high school, taking on more advanced dancing roles in “The Nutcracker” over the years. She later went away to college but came back in 2005, when she and Vacanti became the new PVB directors.

“I was reeled back in,” she said with a laugh, imitating a spinning fishing line.

One thing that hasn’t changed about the ballet over the years is its logistical challenge. The ballet has more than 250 teenage and younger dancers from towns throughout western Massachusetts, plus adult guest dancers and actors. Add in all the production support — stage crew, lighting designers, PVB teachers, volunteers, costume makers and seamstresses — and more than 300 people are typically involved in putting on “The Nutcracker” each year.

“It’s definitely a case of all hands on deck,” Vacanti said.

Not all 250 dancers and actors appear in a single production — some roles are shared by different people, as the cast is divided into teams for six separate performances — but about 100 people will typically appear on stage for a single performance, Kodzis noted. Handling all those moving parts at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where there’s not a lot of room backstage, presents its own challenge, she and Vacanti said.

Rehearsals begin in September, and the pace picks up steadily over the ensuing weeks, particularly for the older teen dancers, who can be at PVB between four and six days a week. It means longer hours as well for staff, including Vacanti, who directs the dance program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for Kodzis, who now lives about an hour away in Connecticut.

“I’ll be sitting here looking at the clock on a Friday night (after a rehearsal) and I’ll say ‘OK, Maryanne, we’re going, and she’ll be like ‘Yeah, yeah, just one more thing,’” Vacanti said, laughing. “And I’ll say, “You do know we have to be back here in about 12 hours?’”

The plot of “The Nutcracker” is pretty well known, but here’s a brief synopsis: The ballet opens with the party scene, where the children Clara and Fritz, their parents and several guests have gathered to decorate the family Christmas tree and hand out presents to the children. Midway through the party, Clara’s mysterious but beloved godfather, Drosselmeyer (played by Vacanti), comes in and hands out additional gifts, including a wooden nutcracker to which Clara takes a special liking. Fritz accidentally breaks the toy, greatly saddening Clara.

Later, when everyone has gone to bed, Clara gets up to check on the nutcracker; Drosselmeyer also reappears, and as the clock strikes midnight, the mice and gingerbread soldiers flood the stage and begin battling. The nutcracker is transformed into a prince — he had been made into wood by a spell cast by the evil mouse king — and he takes Clara to the Land of Sweets, where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, her cavalier and a host of dancers representing sweets from many countries.

Playing to their strengths

A number of variations of the ballet and the storyline, first performed is Russia in 1892, have been introduced over the years, including at PVB. Kodzis and Vacanti said the challenge for them is keeping the production fresh while also maintaining fidelity to a famous storyline that most in the audience know well.

“It’s almost like Shakespeare,” Vacanti said. “Everyone is trying to find a different angle for this story.”

He and Kodzis said they bring some variation to PVB’s “The Nutcracker” each year in part largely by building their choreography around the strengths and experience of the roughly 110 PVB students, all of whom typically take part in the performance.

“We want to have a performance that really puts our dancers in a position to shine,” said Kodzis, noting that when she danced in “The Nutcracker,” the choreography never really changed. “The dancers had to fit the choreography.

“You want to showcase your dancers at their best, not just for the audience but for themselves,” she added. “We try to set then up to succeed. That’s our ultimate goal.”

That can mean she and Vacanti can be tweaking some of the choreography right up until the last minute, sometimes because “the dance isn’t the way I pictured it in my head,” as Kodzis puts it.

At the recent Saturday rehearsal at PVB, she and Vacanti stopped the battle scene between the mice and gingerbread soldiers several times to recalibrate the dancers. As Madison Baptiste, a high school student from South Hadley playing Clara, sat on the floor holding the nutcracker doll, Melanie Ostiguy, a PVB faculty member playing a mouse, snuck up behind Baptiste and reached around her, trying to grab the nutcracker.

“Hold on — let’s try this without the music,” said Kodzis, signaling to PVB teacher Onalie Arts to turn off the soundtrack. Kodzis got down on the floor alongside Ostiguy, indicating how she wanted her to crawl up behind Baptiste. Just a bit later, Vacanti worked with Eve Crane, a graduate this past June from Gateway Regional High School, to reposition her as she pretended to move a standing clock that will be part of the finished scene.

“That’s where you begin,” he said to Crane, as the music kicked back on.

Coming together

The two co-directors said PVB’s “Nutcracker” has also benefited over the last several years from a regular commitment from guest dancers, such as Jan Burkhard, who has performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy several times and is doing so again this year. Burkhard and a number of other dancers with Carolina Ballet, of Raleigh, N.C., have developed particularly close ties with PVB, Kodzis said.

“Not only can we count on them every year, they are great mentors to our dancers, and they’re able to jump right into the production because they know it so well,” Vacanti added.

“The Nutcracker” is also a big draw for adults here in the Pioneer Valley for non-dancing roles such as Mother Ginger. This year several different men, including children’s authors and illustrators Jarrett Krosoczka and Mo Willems, will play the lady with the elaborately coiffed hair and giant hoop skirt.

In an email, Krosoczka said this will be his third time playing Mother Ginger, something he said is pure fun, without all the work the dancers have to do in advance.

“I just turn up on the day of the show, get my face painted up, get harnessed into the giant dress, and then wheeled out to the stage to yuck it up,” he said.

Both his daughters are in the show this year, and his oldest, Zoe, who’s 9, will be a polichinelle — one of the little clowns who fan out from beneath Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt.

“What’s really fun about it is that I get to be backstage and witness all of the excitement that built up to this moment,” Krosoczka added. “I bring my sketchbook and sit in the corner and draw. It is such a magical experience for everyone and such a beautiful tradition for our community.”

And at the end of the day, community is what “The Nutcracker” is all about, Vacanti and Kodzis agree.

“We’re not just a dance school, we’re a community organization, a nonprofit, and we couldn’t exist without the support we get from so many people in this community,” Kodzis said. “That’s part of makes this production so special. It’s the holiday season, it’s a beautiful story, the music is wonderful, but it’s also all about so many people coming together to make this happen.”

Ticket information

Pioneer Valley Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” will be performed Dec. 7 to 9 at the Academy of Music in Northampton, including a special “sensory and family safe” version Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. and a 4oth anniversary show Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m.; the latter features a capella music before the show and during intermission, and champagne for adults. In addition, a one-hour “mini-Nutcracker” takes place Dec. 21 at Yankee Candle Village in South Deerfield.

For tickets and additional information, visit pioneervalleyballet.org or aomtheatre.com.