Township Auditorium teemed with excitement as Richland One School District's third graders squirmed in their seats. I spoke with Cliff Butler, a science and math teacher at Sandel Elementary. No significant preparation had been given to the more than ninety students who came from his school. Daily class schedules are already too tight. The kids were simply excited for the curtain to rise. Then, Nancy Pope, the district's Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator, took center stage. She spoke of audience etiquette. She really didn't need to. The coming two hours proved just how well behaved our local elementary school students really are, even without much of an introduction to ballet, the story line, or other instruction. Shortly thereafter, Neil Casey, Columbia Festival Orchestra conductor, raised his baton and The Nutcracker's overture brought a hush over the crowd.
Ann Brodie's Carolina Ballet presented the full length production. Nothing was abbreviated. Co-artistic director John Whitehead thinks it important that kids be exposed to "the real thing." There were appropriate moments of awe, giggles when Fritz (the youngest Silberhaus child) received a spanking, and gasps of dread when the fearsome Rat King entered the battle scene. Most impressive was the innate knowledge for applause in all the right places. Although Tchaikovsky's score punctuates these moments, the elementary school audience was totally captivated. They were paying close attention to every move. Looking around me, I saw students sitting on the edges of their seats.
During the intermission, I wondered about the hearing impaired students from Brennen Elementary. What impression was made without the melodies? Through an interpreter, I asked. Hands flew in response. I recognized the universal gesture for a powerful lift and a twirling index finger for an amazing pirouette. The consensus: They liked Katherine Brady and Caleb Roberts as Snow Queen and Cavalier. The first act was magical.
Magical! I couldn't agree more. Now, were there problems? A few imperfect lines? Too much smoke affect at the start of the battle scene? A bobble here and there? Of course! But, this is a civic ballet company. Few on stage will ever dance professionally. The cast is almost entirely students. Some aren't even old enough for kindergarten.
What I saw was a very well rehearsed cast and expert staging. I also saw a strong sense of community, especially in the character roles. Jimmy Moon, a NYC actor, returned to Columbia as Herr Drosselmeyer. USC Dance Company Artistic Director Susan Anderson was wonderful as the widow. Parents of current dancer and parents of dancers who are now off in college pulled on evening gowns and tuxedos for the party scene. More adults were back stage carefully assisting with proper entrances and exits.
The second act doesn't have the glitz of a party scene and the action of a battle. It is mostly a sequence of ballet variations ending with the full Sugar Plum pas de deux danced by the guest artists SeHyun Jin and Eric Beckham. These are moments for the dancers to shine, to set a mood, but not necessarily to carry the plot. And yet, the third grade audience remained mesmerized. A dropped pin could have been heard when Hollis Baroody entered as Arabian Coffee. I was most impressed by the Vienesse Marzipan trio. Lily-Cate Buchanan and Adaline Fletcher were expertly partnered by an outstanding young Wesley Miller. Wesley's high caliber of dancing reminded me of Eric Beckham in the same role several years ago. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see this young man in Eric's Sugar Plum Cavalier role in a few years.
Eric Beckham is one of Carolina Ballet's many success stories. He danced his way up the ranks from role to role in The Nutcracker before going off to the School of American Ballet in NYC. For the past two years, he been an apprentice with The National Ballet of Canada. He's now in the corps de ballet at Miami City Ballet. His partner, SeHyun Jin's journey brought her here to Columbia where she is a principal dancer under Radenko Pavolvich at Columbia Classical Ballet.
Over the years I've seen many young dancers grow up in Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker. As a city, we should all be very proud of our civic company and Richland One School district's commitment to bringing a third grade audience. This production is more than an annual exposure to elementary school students. It is proof that Columbia has the potential to grow an outstanding audience for dance. We've had this potential for years. While leaving the auditorium, I asked several students if they'd like to see ballet again. Eyes lit up. Of course they would.
Keeping this flame for dance alive is a problem. How do we, as a community, foster this positive exposure into a knowledgeable, engaged, and passionate future audience? I don't know. I hope my articles for the Jasper Project encourage this conversation. In the mean time, I have one suggestion. The chaperones and teachers accompanying these truly enthralled elementary school kids ought to stay off their cell phones and iPad during the performance. I counted no fewer than six LED lights throughout the second act. Shame on these adults ... because the kids get it.
See if you agree! Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker will be performed this coming weekend at the Township Auditorium:
Friday, November 24 at 7:30
Saturday, November 25 at 7:30
Sunday, November 26 at 3:00 PM
For tickets and reservations, call (803) 576-2350 or visit www.TicketMaster.com