Schools attract publicity and create community by filling Nutcracker non-dancing roles with local celebrities
by Jeanne Palmer-Fornarola
More than 125 years after it premiered, versions of The Nutcracker are performed throughout the holiday season in regional theaters and high school auditoriums, professional venues like Lincoln Center and bare-bones in-studio settings. With so many Nuts to choose from, how does a dance studio attract attention—and audiences—to its production?
Some local and regional productions cast an unconventional “star” in their show. This headliner is often a homegrown favorite such as a public school teacher, community leader, TV or radio personality, or sports figure. Most of the time, these special guests are not experienced dancers or performers—and that’s the fun part.
Glorified sets and other important roles
Dancers ages 12 to 20 make up the corps de ballet for Ballet Virginia International’s annual Nutcracker, and the Norfolk, Virginia, academy and company often invites professional dancers to tackle lead roles. But BVI also invites special guests from the community; local favorites who have participated in past productions include a city treasurer, a mayor, and local radio and TV personalities.
With rehearsal time set at two hours every Saturday for 8 to 12 weeks plus tech rehearsal and seven performances, the time commitment is significant. But many are willing to invest in the process as a way to give back to the community and participate in an arts experience. The potential for family bonding attracts others.
Co-artistic director Janina Michalski Bove says that about 10 years ago she recruited some of her students’ fathers to fill male roles in the party scene. The participating fathers have dubbed themselves Party Dads and joke that they are “glorified sets” because they walk independently around the stage instead of being moved by stagehands.
“The dads say appearing in The Nutcracker is a special time with their children,” Michalski Bove says. “Many continue to be in the production even when their children no longer dance or have graduated.”
Lisa McCarty, BVI marketing director and children’s program director, says audiences enjoy seeing city officials and other non-dancers make their “ballet debut” in The Nutcracker. She says the special guests’ appearances generate publicity and spur ticket sales, particularly for the evening shows in the production’s run. In 2017, the Virginian Pilot, one of the state’s largest newspapers, ran a feature story on the Party Dads. Local newspapers, in particular, are responsive to stories that are “relatable and cute,” McCarty says.
Eager to take a bow
Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet in Jamestown, New York, also charms audiences by using non-traditional guest artists in its Nutcracker (which the school has produced for nearly 20 years). Elizabeth Bush, CRYB executive director, includes information about any guests who will appear in non-dancing roles in press releases to the local media.
Guests can be positively giddy over appearing in the ballet. Monika Alch, CRYB artistic director, says she remembers one woman who won a walk-on part through a fundraising auction held for another local arts organization. “She drove from Fredonia [about a half-hour away] and made all the scheduled rehearsals and shows,” Alch says. “We whipped her into shape. She was very dedicated and never missed a rehearsal. She even had to stay in a hotel one night when a show was cancelled due to the weather.”
For many years, local physician Peter Walter played the role of Party Host (aka Mr. Stahlbaum) but when he wasn’t able to appear in the 2017 production, Alch had to recast. The role went to Richie Joly, Jamestown High School Red Raiders’ assistant varsity football coach, special education teacher, and father of Peyton, a 9-year-old CRYB ballet student.
“I had never participated in any aspect of the performing arts, let alone a professional production,” says Joly. “Being able to participate in the production with my daughter is what sold it for me. I want to model for my children and football players that getting out of your comfort zone makes you grow as a person.”
The Post-Journal not only covered the high school football coach’s foray into ballet, but featured the story a second time in its “Four Local Stories in 2017 That Transcended Sports” New Year’s wrap-up.
Good feelings all around
Inviting community leaders to appear as special guests can have an additional benefit besides increased publicity and ticket sales. When dance studios allow non-dancers to witness firsthand what they do and how they do it, respect and appreciation for the art form—and for the studio itself—can grow.
“Our community is so incredibly fortunate to have CRYB. It has helped so many of our young women and men achieve tremendous personal growth,” Walter says. “As a community guest in the productions, I saw firsthand the amazing commitment and dedication of the staff and the dancers.”
And that deserves many curtain calls.
Jeanne Palmer-Fornarola is a clinical associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Theatre and Dance.