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