A holiday favorite: The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker Ballet has become a not-to-be-missed expression of the holiday season. Of all the many versions, New Canaan’s New England Academy of Dance production is outstanding. This is the academy’s 30th Nutcracker production and each year there have been additions to make the Tchaikovsky classic more beautiful and entertaining. More than 250 students will be in this year’s ballet Dec. 4-6, the largest production of The Nutcracker in the region.

With 500 students from Westchester and Fairfield Counties, ranging in age from three-year olds to high school seniors, the New England Academy of Dance has many dancers eager to perform. Each year there are auditions for the most experienced academy students to perform leading roles and almost every student is part of the production in some way. This year, four area high school seniors will be featured: Kate Nusslein and Celia Rogers of Darien, Simone Teich of Lewisboro and Sarah Wilson of New Canaan.  Several parents will also find themselves costumed participants in the opening party scene.

The academy is “dedicated to providing dance education for students and aspiring professionals, as well as the student who wishes to dance for pure enjoyment. The goal is to acquire strength, flexibility and grace.” It does that and much more.  Co-directors Ginna Ortiz, her twin sister Frances, and Ted Thomas (who is married to Frances) are all professional dancers who have performed in prestigious ballet companies.  They are examples of the skills that result from intense training and deep commitment to do their very best. For students, this means acceptance of very hard work, discipline and  teamwork. This training becomes an integral part of their growing up.

In the first years of Nutcracker performances, sets were handmade, costumes were homemade.  Now, the costumes are made by professionals and talented costume seamstresses: Sandra DiCambio, Debra Katz and Laurie Walker. Students’ mothers also help. The participation and enthusiasm of parents is quite remarkable. The academy becomes a creative, inventive family. The production brings in professional dancers for some of the starring roles.

The NEAD ‘s Nutcracker is more than a superb production. Five years ago, the board of directors decided that they wanted to reach out and bring the ballet to underserved children who may not know what ballet is. These children come from schools and organizations in the area and this year’s benefit performance will provide transportation for a thousand children. In 2014, 1400 children attended the benefit performance.

“We want our work to be shared with children who would otherwise probably never see a ballet,” said Ginna Ortiz. The New England Academy of Dance and the Dance Theater of Connecticut (the Academy’s performing arm) work together on the production, which uses the original Royal Orchestra score.  Twenty-five of the most experienced dancers form The Company. They help demonstrate the choreography to the younger students and are devoted to the academy. Coleen Brererton of Darien is one of them. “She’s often there seven days a week,” said her mother.” Academy dancers keep up with schoolwork. (They usually become better students.)

It’s a Sunday rehearsal, at the New Canaan studio where there is as much floor space as the actual stage. I am a guest, observing Ginna Ortiz direct a well-rehearsed performance of The Waltz of The Flowers.  The hard work and the passionate energy of the dancers can be seen and felt.  Ginna doesn’t hesitate to stop the dancers whenever she wants to improve an entrance, correct body language or emphasize a moment. “O.K. Blue Bells!” and a flurry  enters. Rehearsals are without music until the segment is complete. This is ballet at its most youthful and vigorous. “I need shoulder to shoulder!” Ginna shouts. “Look up at your arms!” When the slightest improvement is needed, it’s repeated again and again. Ginna has an eye for every dancer, knows their strengths and weaknesses. This is all about details and hard work ”Each of you has something to give each other,” Ginna reminds them. Observing this rehearsal makes me appreciate the attentiveness of the dancers, expectations of the director and the patience required to achieve what’s possible.

The history of NEAD starts with Doris Driver, a former Rockette who danced in several Broadway shows.  In 1968, she started the New Canaan Ballet School with 12 students. As the school grew, she brought in professional dancers from New York, which is how she met the Ortiz sisters and Ted Thomas. In 2003, Driver retired and passed the directorship to Ginna, Frances, and Ted. Their leadership has helped the New England Academy of Dance grow to 500 dancers. In 1985, the first Annual Nutcracker was performed.

It’s a most enjoyable way for families to see a rewarding, refreshed Nutcracker. There will be three performances at New Canaan High School, 11 Farm Road: Friday, Dec. 4, at 7:30 pm; Saturday, Dec. 5, and Sunday, Dec. 6 at 4 p.m. A special children’s show for younger audiences will be offered at 11 a.m. To obtain tickets for the 30th Anniversary performance go the website: neadance.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.

A special event for children, Tea with the Sugar Plum Fairy, will be offered Saturday morning at 9:45 and 12:15, when children will have the opportunity to meet and take pictures with some of the Nutcracker’s main characters. Tickets are limited, available on the website.