The Nutcracker a proud tradition for school of arts

by Keith Barber

The Nutcracker, an annual production of the UNC School of the Arts, premieres Saturday at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. Directed by Ethan Stiefel and supervised by Douglas Gawriljuk, the 2011 Nutcracker will debut with a 2 p.m. matinee followed by a 7:30 p.m. show. The show runs through Dec. 18. (courtesy photo)

Legend has it that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker didn’t go over big when it debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1892. Adapted from an ETA Hoffman children’s story, The Nutcracker would eventually find its rightful place in Tchaikovsky’s amazing canon of works that includes The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and the 1812 Overture.

The Nutcracker is quite simply, the most popular and most performed ballet in the world. For the past 46 years, the UNC School of the Arts has consistently elevated The Nutcracker to new heights with a cast, crew and orchestra composed mostly of students with a singular focus — to renew and revivify Tchaikovsky’s Christmas fairy tale with a concerted effort of more than 300 dedicated individuals.

“The thing about Nutcracker is it’s truly more than a ballet,” said Nutcracker executive producer Katharine Laidlaw.

The 2011 edition of The Nutcracker opens on Saturday at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem with a 2 p.m. matinee followed by an opening night performance at 7:30 p.m.

“One of the things we hope to instill in the students is a very high level of expectation,” Laidlaw said. “The Nutcracker is not just a scholarship fundraiser but a tremendous learning opportunity. Setting a high bar is really inspiring for our students — they’re performing to some of the most beloved music ever written.”

As in years prior, school of the arts faculty member Ethan Stiefel will direct The Nutcracker but from a distance. Although he co-choreographed this production along with Nigel Burley, Warren Conover and Susan McCullough, Stiefel did not oversee this production.

Stiefel appointed Douglas Gawriljuk from the UNCSA School of Dance to be artistic supervisor of this year’s production, and the transition has been relatively seamless for the performers.

“Douglas is a truly warm and inspiring individual — watching him talk and work with the students, he’s very careful in his words in how he coaches them,” Laidlaw said.

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dance in London, Gawriljuk has been working with more than 100 student performers since auditions began in September, and he’s continually challenging the dancers to push themselves beyond their limits.

“We had a run-through, the last run-through before going into the [Stevens Center] and he talked to them about settling into a run, about how after you perform The Nutcracker once or twice you sort of lose that vigor,” Laidlaw said. “He said, ‘As a professional dancer I always performed like it was the first time.’ It was very inspirational to the students because they all aspire to be professional dancers.”

Standouts from this year’s cast include Winston-Salem native Haley Miller, who has graduated from the role of Clara Silverhaus to that of the Snow Queen.

“She’s 15 years old and cast in a professional role,” Laidlaw said.

“To watch her grow and develop has become very inspiring to me. Who knows what the future holds for Haley?” Charlotte native Trey Mauldwin has also impressed Gawriljuk with his versatility and raw talent. Joining the 75 dancers in The Nutcracker will be Gonzalo Garcia, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, and Ana Sophia Scheller, a soloist with the New York City Ballet. Garcia will play the role of Cavalier Prince during opening weekend, and Scheller will play the coveted role of Sugarplum Fairy.

Charles Barker, principal conductor for the American Ballet Theatre, will direct the nearly 50 student musicians that compose the UNCSA Nutcracker Orchestra.

Lighting designer Ken Wills, a UNCSA student, will be implementing Brad Fields’s lighting design while adding his own personal flair.

Stiefel’s leadership has helped UNCSA students rise to the occasion while Gawriljuk’s brilliant direction have given the dancers the artistic freedom to create their own unique interpretation of a timeless classic. Tchaikovsky’s debut of The Nutcracker may have met with mixed reviews 120 years ago, but UNCSA’s production should breathe new life into this beloved holiday tradition.

“There are always new voices every year — it is a work in progress and an evolution every year that is reflective of the talents in that year’s production,” Laidlaw said. “It’s a huge thing but it’s something we’re enormously proud of. All of us who work on it consider it a great privilege.”

wanna go?

The Nutcracker Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Stevens Center

405 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 18. For ticket info, call 336.721.1945.