By Joseph Robertia
From putting up decorations to making festive foods, there are numerous ways people celebrate the holiday season. On the Kenai Peninsula, taking in the Homer Nutcracker Ballet has become an annual tradition for many residents over the past 27 years.
“The production has been going on since 1987 when my mom, Jill Berryman, had the idea,” said Breezy Berryman, who, along with Jennifer Norton, will be the co-artistic directors for this year’s 28th annual performance, as they have the past five seasons.
Jill Berryman, along with Joy Stewart, Marianne Markelz and Ken Castner, built the show up over 22 years from a little production with a few sets and costumes into a giant yearly tradition.
Breezy remembers those times, too, since she was often in the production.
“I was in the very first one as Clara and every year until I graduated, and then I even came back many different times to dance and help my mom choreograph different roles,” she said.
Since taking over the production, Breezy and Norton have tried to bring their own twist, including, at times, the use of lasers and neon lights, but have often favored the original Russian storyline.
“When Breezy and I took over, we introduced E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale back into the show. The original ballet is based on that story, but focuses more on Clara, and a kind of dream sequence in which she sees wonderful dances from around the world. We decided to focus more on the Tale of the Hard Nut, which is how the Nutcracker actually becomes a Nutcracker. We got to introduce a lot of fun new characters that way,” Norton said.
This year, they decided to return to the more traditional ballet story, although still with some deviations to make it creatively their own.
This year’s production will also feature one of the largest casts so far.
“We had 103 kids audition and we have the biggest cast ever at 85. It is very challenging to get all those people coordinated, but perhaps more challenging to turn them down at auditions,” Norton said.
Many of the kids are younger this year, too, mostly 13- and 14-year-olds, but Breezy said they have practiced hard to meet the expectation of performing to the best of their abilities.
“This year the cast is pretty young because a lot of our high school students graduated. Some of the choreography is quite challenging, but I’m really pleased with how much they are working hard to step up to the challenges,” she said.
Norton said it helps to try and pair each teen with a role that best suits them, based on their talents and abilities.
“The most complex part of this production for me is trying to give all the kids a part that they will love. There are often several hard-working dancers competing for the same roles and we try to make sure that even if they don’t get the exact role they imagined, we are giving them something challenging and rewarding which best highlights their abilities,” Norton said.
Professional dancers have joined the ensemble in some years, from as far as New York City and San Francisco. This season Ilya Burov will be involved. Burov studied and danced in the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia before coming to the U.S. where he is artistic director at Anchorage Dance Theatre.
“It is important to expose the kids to people with lots of ballet and dance experience. They always learn so much from people who have chosen to make a career if it,” Norton said.
Breezy and Norton said that seeing kids come to the arts brings them back year after year.
“For me, it’s watching the kids grow and improve, and getting to see the final product onstage — that is the most rewarding part,” Breezy said.
“I love seeing these kids progress over the years. It is wonderful now, five years in, to see the kids who were mice — 5- and 6-year olds who never danced before — getting roles in the corps de ballet,” Norton said.
Quinn Alward, 17, is one of the kids who’s grown up in the Nutcracker, after his mom volunteered him 10 years ago. He started with mice and progressed to playing the warrior portion of the Nutcracker’s role, when he battles the Rat King. It is this foe that Alward will be playing in this, his final performance with the production.
“It’s been a good run and really fun, but I’ll probably go on to other things next year, so it’s exciting to be the Rat King, the big, bad guy of the show,” he said.
Alward said he learned a lot from his years with the show, and not just about the arts, but also community.
“The whole town comes out for this, and it feels really good to be a part of that. There’s a family feel to it,” he said.
Norton agreed that the show is well supported by the Homer area and beyond.
“We have the kids and the directors, of course, but their parents and other community members put so much energy into the show. It would be impossible to do it without them, and the show is richer for having so many people’s great ideas floating around,” she said.
Performances are at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5, 3 p.m. Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 3 p.m. Dec. 12. Tickets are $10, available at River City Books in Soldotna and the Homer Book Store.