Saturday afternoon was the time for dancers and musicians to perfect their performance of “The Nutcracker” at the Alberta Bair Theater for their Saturday night premiere.
Before for the start of the dress rehearsal, a cacophony of children’s voices filled the back stage area as they chatted excitedly with each other. In costumes, makeup and hair in curls or pulled tight into buns, they were ready for their moment in the spotlight.
"This year I'm in the party scene, I'm a senior soldier and I'm a garland girl," said 13-year-old Madelynn Hust of Laurel, standing with the other party girls. "It's pretty crazy ’cause when you're backstage, you have to make really quick changes and then you have to be right back on stage."
The young dancers moved into place, joining their professional counterparts from the San Diego Ballet. Then the first delicate first notes composed by Tchaikovsky signaled the start of the beloved ballet.
Because the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee performances were both sold out, tickets were made available for the dress rehearsal. About 100 adults and children sat in the middle of the theater to watch.
They came knowing that director Robin Sheretz Morgan, who stood at the front of the auditorium directly below the stage, might interrupt a dance at any moment to make last-minute adjustments. No one seemed to mind, as the magic of the ballet captured the audience.
During the rehearsal Morgan did call out directions to the young dancers, reminding them of their timing or position. Occasionally she chatted with a member of the ballet company, or with Illinois guest conductor David Commanday, to make sure the dancers’ movements blended flawlessly with the music.
Morgan, before the rehearsal started, said she and her company will perform “The Nutcracker” in a number of cities in the region over the next weeks. Each new town is like starting over, she said, because the company works with a new set of children and a new symphony.
“We had a rehearsal last night and we did most of the blocking and staging and tested some of the music,” she said. “And so today we put them all in costumes, which gives it a whole different look, and it brings it more to reality.”
Clara and the Prince, the Snow King and Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cossack all made their way onto the stage. Together they tell the Christmas tale of Clara, her Nutcracker/Prince and their magical adventures.
The ballet is a favorite for everyone, Morgan said.
“It’s such a pleasurable show for all ages and it’s so much fun," she said. “Even for the dancers who have danced it every single year and may get tired of the parts they’re in, they always have that affinity with the ballet and with the music.”
Commanday, who guest directed the Billings Symphony Orchestra, has performed the Nutcracker “literally hundreds of times.”
“I’m not sure there is any other musical score which could continue to delight an interest anyone over so many repetitions,” he said. “Of course I love what changes with each new dancer and each new company, but the music itself, of course, is timeless.”
Conducting music for a ballet brings a different kind of challenge, Commanday said.
“The role of the conductor in a ballet is to marry the inspiration of the music and the spirit of the music to the technical needs of the dancers, and obviously the intentions of the choreographer,” he said.
Betty Loos, founder of the School of Classical Ballet in Billings who coordinates the young dancers, was in the center of the storm Saturday making sure they were all ready to go.
“It’s a little crazy, just getting all the kids organized, with helpers, and into costumes,” Loos said, taking a moment from her hectic day.
The number of young dancers ages 6 to 18 for the two performances totaled 100.
“They start out as baby mice, then they get to be merlitons in Chinese, which are big parts for them,” Loos said. “So it’s fun to watch them go through all those stages.”
Amantha Vandivere, who helped train some of the dancers at her Diversity Dance Studio, was on hand to watch one in particular, her 6-year-old daughter, Brooke.
Vandivere performed the part of Clara about 25 years ago in England. Her advice to her daughter was "to run little and smile big" because little runs are pretty much what the baby sheep do on stage.
"It brings back a lot of good memories and it's very fun, seeing her do it for the first time and having so much fun," Vandivere said.