Nancy and Mickey Gunter of Centralia Ballet Academy say keeping their students dancing over the COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy.
After all of the masking, temperature checks and working with doctors to understand best practices, they said being able to offer in-person ballet performances feels like a reward for their hard work.
“After everything we’ve been through, it’s exciting,” Nancy Gunter said.
Centralia Ballet Academy will present “The Nutcracker” this year Dec. 4-5 in Corbet Theatre on the Centralia College Campus. Centralia Ballet Academy was started 13 years ago and has been offering a full-length production of “The Nutcracker” since 2017. Prior to 2017, the studio offered performances highlighting parts of the classic ballet during the Christmas season. Last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the studio created a movie-style version of “The Nutcracker” that was offered for download.
“It was really cool to have people from all over the world buying it and saying nice things about it,” Mickey Gunter said of last year’s offering. “And we mostly did it because we didn’t want another thing to be canceled.”
Featuring the original score by Tchaikovsky, Centralia Ballet Academy’s production of “The Nutcracker” Is the classic Christmas ballet many people are accustomed to with a few new twists. It follows the story of Clara Silberhaus (danced by Brianna Smith) who is gifted with a nutcracker doll by Drosselmeyer (danced by Isaac McKenzieSullivan) at her family’s Christmas party. In the night, Clara wakes to find an epic battle between the rats and mice led by the Rat King (danced by Tess McMurry) and the toy soldiers led by the Toy Soldier General (danced by Violet Davis) and her Nutcracker, who has grown to life size. Clara and her Nutcracker defeat the Rat King and travel together to the Land of the sweets where she meets such characters as: the Snow Queen (danced by Magenta Wilhelmi) and Snow King (danced by Marius Williams, Jr.) and their snowflakes (danced by McKenna Bryan, Brooke Larson, Tess McMurry, Lydia Smith and Jenova Williams); Chef Ginger (danced by Caitlyn Rose) and her gingerbread cookies (danced by Hannah Denney, Auria Franks, Ana Perez-Misner, Chloe Tinkham and Crystal Tinkham); and the Sugar Plum Fairy (danced by Jenova Williams) and her Cavalier (danced by Jacob Mecham).
Mickey Gunter has been working with a consultant who had worked as a Disney Imagineer to create ways to make Centralia Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” a more exciting and immersive experience. One of the ways they have used their Imagineering training is to expand the back stories of some of the characters. For instance, Centralia Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” supposes that the Silberhaus family had a distant relative who worked in imports and was abducted on the high seas by pirate rats. Before escaping his captors, he stole a jeweled star that now sits atop the family’s Christmas tree — an explanation for the rat king and his army attacking the family.
Another way they plan to use Imagineering in future years is to offer an English-style village set up that audience members can explore outside the theater for a more immersive experience. Since creating areas where people congregate is not allowed by Centralia College because of COVID-19 regulations, this year they plan to offer “to-go” boxes full of Nutcracker themed items that audience members can purchase. Next year, they hope to be able to add the expanded entrance.
“This year is going to be a great show but next year we will have all the bells and whistles so people can experience the show outside the stage,” Mickey Gunter said.
While this will be the first in-person offering of “The Nutcracker” by Centralia Ballet Academy since the beginning of COVID-19, this will not be the first live performance for these dancers since the pandemic began. They were able to hold their June recital outside at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds and then held a sold-out version of “Sleeping Beauty” at Red Barn Studios. Mickey Gunter said they found ways to create performing opportunities because they believed their dancers needed the outlet.
“We want to make sure these kids have opportunities and memories that get them through this,” Mickey Gunter said.
The Centralia Ballet Academy version of “The Nutcracker” will feature about 50 dancers, ranging from children to adult community members. One of the more heartwarming parts of this year’s rehearsals has been seeing the knowledge that is now being passed down between dancers in some of the primary roles. Former dancers, some of whom have graduated and no longer dance at Centralia Ballet, have come back to work with this year’s dancers.
“It’s that feeling of community,” Mickey Gunter said.
Nancy Gunter said that mentoring has always been a large part of the experience of dancing in the cast of “The Nutcracker.” Older and more experienced dancers are paired with newer dancers in a big brother/big sister program.
“Sometimes, it’s not a big thing but the young ones just love that the older kids are ready and willing to help them out,” Nancy Gunter said. “It helps Mick and I and honestly, sometimes it seems like they just get it more when they’re learning it from someone they have looked up to.”
There will be no tickets for Centralia Ballet Academy’s “The Nutcracker” sold at the door and performances are expected to sell out. Mickey Gunter explained this is because their online ticketing platform is creating social distancing between blocks of tickets as tickets are purchased, which would be much more difficult at the event. While available, the Corbet Theater cry room can be purchased as a “luxury suite” experience for one group of up to 10 people per performance.
Those sitting in the luxury suite may watch without masks and will have refreshments served.