A Nutcracker for All

How one school uses this classic ballet to share dance with the entire student body

Renaissance Academy’s Christa Wilson helps a student in the snow corps get ready.

On the surface, the Renaissance Academy’s Nutcracker looks like many other productions of the ballet. There are party, battle and snow scenes performed in colorful costumes. But what the audience at the annual performances in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, may not know is that over half the ballet’s cast had no prior dance experience, and before participating in the production, knew very little about The Nutcracker.

The mix of dancers and nondancers is intentional, says Renaissance’s dance director Mehgan Jarvie. She seized an opportunity when she launched the production in 2007: Not only could The Nutcracker augment the school dance department’s two annual recitals, it could also expose the entire school to dance.

Each year, participation in the holiday ballet has increased. The all-inclusive Nutcracker has also inspired some of the production’s nondance students to enroll in the school’s dance classes. Renaissance principal Gina Guarino Buli says the production has translated into stronger community awareness of the school and its offerings. And Jarvie’s efforts, along with Renaissance’s arts goals, have earned the school national attention. Last spring, Renaissance Academy earned a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts School of Distinction in Arts Education award, and the dance department received special recognition.

Renaissance Academy is a K–12 public charter school that opened in 2000 and draws students of all economic levels from 18 districts in the Phoenixville area. In addition to core curriculum classes in math, science, history and English, Renaissance offers music, drama, dance and visual arts. Roughly 40 percent of the school’s 1,000 students take dance, which is required in the third grade and offered as an elective to students in grades 7–12.

Now in its fourth year, Jarvie’s Nutcracker production has grown from a low-budget affair, featuring a cast of 110 students performing excerpts of the ballet in the school’s gym, to a full-blown production with 145 students dancing three shows at a local 500-seat theater.

Last year, the production cost $25,000, some of which Jarvie raised through grants and fundraising. She supplemented this support with the previous year’s ticket sales (roughly $10,000). Students pay a $20 fee and purchase their own shoes and tights. But if someone cannot afford these contributions, Jarvie waives the fee and purchases the child’s shoes and tights using production budget funds.

Casting for The Nutcracker begins each fall, when Jarvie announces open call auditions. Since she casts everyone, the audition serves more as an evaluation to see where students fit best. Jarvie separates students by grade level and teaches each group 15 counts of the choreography (most of which is original to her). She assesses how well each student can follow and repeat dance movements. She also looks at how they handle performing in front of the other auditionees. “Most of our students have never performed before,” she says. To make sure everyone has a positive experience, she doesn’t put anyone in the spotlight who might feel uncomfortable there.

Lead roles don’t always go to the best dancers or oldest students. One year Jarvie cast a fourth-grader as the Sugar Plum Fairy; another year, a high school senior performed the role. And students with no dance experience are often cast as leads. “I look for someone who is going to sparkle onstage,” she says.

Rehearsals begin the week after auditions and take place after school in the Renaissance dance studio. Jarvie generally uses non-ballet terms, especially for younger students. “Teaching pas de bourrée, I may say step-back-side-together, or for échappé, I say ‘Jump your feet apart and then jump them back together crisscross,’” she says.

Jarvie prepares choreography ahead of time, but she’s always ready to make adjustments. “I try to make everyone look their best,” she says. “I would rather have simple movements with everyone smiling than complex steps the students are going to worry about.”

In November, Jarvie adds Saturday run-through rehearsals. For many participants, this is their first glimpse of the full Nutcracker story. She uses large posters arranged in the ballet’s order to guide the students. The posters also provide practical information about each scene: who’s dancing, where they enter and exit and what the number’s costumes look like.

On the final Saturday, the students gather for a dress rehearsal. Dancers try on their costumes, which are either purchased from a costume company or pulled from the inventory of those used in years past. Jarvie enlists parents and faculty to play the ballet’s adult roles. Ron Confino, who works in Renaissance’s technology department and coaches the high school’s golf and baseball teams, made his dance debut in last year’s production playing Drosselmeyer. Confino sees his participation as a way of opening up the minds of student athletes. “When they ask about me being in The Nutcracker I tell them, ‘Yeah it’s fun. A lot of pro athletes take ballet,’” says Confino. Seeing their coach onstage, he hopes, may inspire the young athletes to say, “I want to do that.” DT

 

Steve Sucato is a former dancer living in Ohio. He writes for a number of publications and is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association.

Photo Courtesy of Mehgan Jarvie

Studio Owners
The Dance Concept staff in the midst of their costume pickup event. Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

Year-end recitals are an important milestone for dancers to demonstrate what they've learned throughout the year. Not to mention the revenue boost they bring—often 15 to 20 percent of a studio's yearly budget. But how do you hold a spring recital when you're not able to rehearse in person, much less gather en masse at a theater?

"I struggled with the decision for a month, but it hit me that a virtual recital was the one thing that would give our kids a sense of closure and happiness after a few months on Zoom," says Lisa Kaplan Barbash, owner of TDS Dance Company in Stoughton, MA. She's one of countless studio owners who faced the challenges of social distancing while needing to provide some sort of end-of-year performance experience that had already been paid for through tuition and costume fees.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Ryan Smith Visuals, courtesy Whitworth

A New Hampshire resident since 2006, Amanda Whitworth is the director of dance at Plymouth State University and the co-founder of ARTICINE, a nonprofit that uses the performing and creative arts as a means to improve people's health. Whitworth is also the founder of Lead With Arts, a consulting service working in three priority areas: performance and production, arts and health, and creative placemaking. The NH State Council on the Arts recommended her to the governor for a two-year term, February 2020 to February 2022. She is the first dancer in New Hampshire to hold the title of artist laureate. We caught up with her to hear about her new role:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Genevieve Weeks, founder of Tutu School. Courtesy of Tutu School

As the founder of Tutu School, a dance studio business with a successful franchise model that has grown to 37 locations throughout the United States, Genevieve Weeks was in a unique position for a studio owner at the start of COVID-19. Not only did she have to make sure her own, original Tutu School locations weathered the virus' storm, she also felt a duty to guide her franchisees through the tumult.

Though she admits it was a particularly grueling experience for her at the start—her husband at one point was bringing all of her meals to her at her laptop, so she could continue working without pause—the appreciation she's felt from her franchisees is palpable. "What I've heard from the Tutu School owners is that they're grateful to be part of a franchise system right now," says Weeks.

So how does a franchise survive something like COVID-19? Here's what got Weeks—and her franchisees—through the first few months of the pandemic.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.