Nutcracker, sweet after 42 years

by Keith Barber

Robby Mantegna’s voice echoed inside a cavernous workshop on the campus of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston- Salem, and the chamber fell silent.

Mantegna, the production stage manager for The Nutcracker, politely offered instructions to dancers and crew during the show’s first technical rehearsal inside the School of Design’s scene shop on Nov. 19. Dance students and production students listened closely as they worked collaboratively on a scene known as the “the transition,” which appears to coincide with the moment in the ETA Hoffman story when young Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree with the injured nutcracker in her arms. The dream sequence requires precise timing and choreography between the technical and artistic elements of the ballet. On Mantegna’s cue, Tchaikovsky’s famous score filled the space as cast and crew went to work. The transition required half a dozen production and design students to take apart a 15-foot high set piece and move it offstage, while others animated inanimate objects and dancers carefully made their prescribed steps. Frank Smith, an instructor in the school of dance, supervised the rehearsal and stepped in as a performer when necessary. Smith has the distinction of performing in the first School of the Arts’ production of The Nutcracker at Reynolds Auditorium in 1966. The nature of The Nutcracker is that its magic lies in the creative process. Auditions began for School of the Arts’ dance students the third week in September. Smith, who performed in the American Ballet Theater, has been watching his students closely ever since to cast the ballet. Smith posted the cast list the day before the tech rehearsal for the 80 to 100 dancers involved in the production. The Nutcracker will feature a different lineup of dancers each night. “It’s always a different quality of dancer from year to year. The choreography is always the same. How you get students to that performance level changes from year to year,” he said. After the sixth run through of the transition sequence, Mantegna huddled in the center of the scene shop with cast and crew to assess their comfort level. Satisfied, Mantegna thanked the student dancers and crew for their efforts and wished them a happy Thanksgiving holiday. Mantegna felt good about the rehearsal but said it’s difficult to measure how it will go on opening night. “This scene is one of the hardest things to execute on the stage, but the adrenaline should kick in when they’re on the Stevens Center stage,” he said. Another tech rehearsal was slated for the Monday after Thanksgiving. The cast and crew of The Nutcracker have been rehearsing six days a week to uphold a Christmas tradition. “For forty-some years now, it’s been a staple,” said Smith. Kelly Porter, a high school senior and dance major, is a veteran of The Nutcracker. Speaking on behalf of the dancers, Porter said there is an unspoken reverence for this production more than any other. Porter describes her previous Nutcracker performances as “exhilarating,” and generously shares advice with younger performers. “First, I tell them to breathe. I say, ‘You’ll have fun when you’re out there.’ Dance as if no one’s watching,” Porter said. At 8:45 p.m., dancers milled around, putting on winter coats and slinging backpacks over their shoulders as the scene shop began to empty out. Mantegna lingered with a few of his crew. He wanted to consult with them to make absolutely sure the set pieces were sturdy enough to handle 10 performances on the Stevens Center stage. Another night behind the scenes was drawing to a close and Mantegna felt a little more assured about the show coming off without a hitch. “We’re all here to put together a great production,” he said. To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at

The Nutcracker willbe performed at the Stevens Center, located at 405 W. 4 th St. inWinston-Salem, from Dec. 6-14 with shows at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Forfurther information, call 336.721.1945.

RobbyMantegna (left) production stage manager for The Nutcracker, instructsa dancer from the UNC School of the Arts School of Dance during thefirst tech rehearsal on Nov. 19. (photo by Keith T. Barber)