America’s most popular ballet, “The Nutcracker,” returns to Lincoln Theater for three performances, Dec. 17 and 18, produced by Napa Regional Dance Company’s (NRDC) Wanda Martin McGill and starring 42 performers, plus 52 musicians.
“The Nutcracker” is steeped in a rich past, dating back to 1844 when French writer Alexandre Dumas (of “The Three Musketeers” fame) adapted a darker, earlier version written by E.T.A. Hoffman — intended for adults only. The Russian Imperial Ballet master approved of Dumas’ lighter, more child-friendly revisions and transformed it into a ballet, commissioning Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky to compose the score.
The rest is history.
McGill has been the driving force guiding the success of NRDC for the past 28 years and since 2000, has produced a “Nutcracker” each year, training dancers ages six to 17 for the various roles in the multi-faceted production.
“There are so many versions, and there wasn’t really any one with roles for kids that young,” McGill said. “You can always adjust the story, and we’ve added some music from ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Our 17-year old students have now performed 10 years of ‘Nutcracker,’ literally every part, and it gives kids something to look forward to.”
Open auditions occur in May of each year with segment rehearsals during the summer and full rehearsals in play after Labor Day. This labor of love demands a dedicated commitment of personal time to succeed.
“Kids give us their weekends for many, many months, and only Thanksgiving is exempt from rehearsals,” McGill pointed out. “Adults join the cast as well. This year, we have the entire Finkelstein family on stage (grandmother Bunnie, parents Judd and Holly, plus kids Talulah and Ruby) and two doctors from Kaiser. It’s about family, being part of your child’s life and what they are interested in.”
In 2014, NRDC formed the nonprofit Napa Regional Dance Foundation to help support more performance opportunities for young dancers in the valley as well as to bring them together with other forms of artistic expression for collaborations.
“Our first project,” said foundation president Wendi Moore, “was to bring live symphony music to accompany the annual ‘Nutcracker’ production in December 2015. For the dancers, this adds a challenge to their performance in that the music is less predictable than a recording. They must adjust their dancing in real time. Working with a symphony also compels them to participate in the dialogue between music and movement, an essentially more authentic experience as dancers.”
With production costs for “The Nutcracker” at roughly $26,000 annually, adding a live, professional orchestra runs in the neighborhood of an additional $20,000, which pays for one rehearsal and three performances. The foundation helps raise money through small grants, individual contributions, matching funds from local businesses and ticket revenue.
While fundraising can be challenging, McGill is determined to bring live orchestration each year while keeping ticket prices affordable for the target audience: families.
Leading the musical charge for a third “Nutcracker” season with NRDC is Dr. Steven Thompson, whose experience includes stints as music director for the American River College Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra of Northern California (SONC), the Benicia Festival Orchestra and the Solano College/Solano County Youth Orchestra.
“Audiences will hear a 52-member orchestra of professional musicians from all over Northern California,” said Thompson, “with players from San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, Sacramento and Napa. We always look forward to Tchaikovsky’s score and find interesting details to bring out in the music to keep it fresh and exciting. I use the full Tchaikovsky orchestration of ‘Nutcracker’ which is rare these days.”
As McGill completes final preparation for costumes, scenery, score and choreography, she is giddy with excitement, even after 15 seasons of producing “The Nutcracker.” “It’s so traditional and such a sweet, dreamy story with a happy ending,” McGill said. “With so much turmoil in our world and so many harsh realities, it’s a nice little break-away, and families have looked forward to this for years.”
“I have fun doing it because we‘ve been so well-received. It’s just fun to have it in the Napa Valley, and it’s local, something special for the community. It’s a tradition, even for people who have seen it every year. How can that not put you in a good mood”!