Local Nutcracker looks a lot like home
Angie Wells, director of Brevard Ballet and Brevard Ballet School, laughs when asked how many times through her study, training, and professional dance career she has performed in The Nutcracker.
“A million times!”
A bit of an exaggeration — unless you count the lingering after effects of Tchaikovsky’s enduring two-act ballet. It’s a holiday chestnut performed on stages big and small countless times all over America, and Wells says it can seem to follow a person around. “As a professional ballet dancer, you run to the mall on your day off to do some Christmas shopping and the Nutcracker music comes on at some point, and you run out crying, ‘Nooo!’”
And yet, the timeless story of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier proved irresistible to Wells the year after she founded her own school, in 2012. “In 2013, Mimi Worrell, my teacher from Columbia Ballet School, came up to Brevard to visit me and she said, ‘You know, you should try a Nutcracker.’ It would have been pretty overwhelming to do without her help, but she brought some of her students to do the leads. We didn’t have all the scenes, of course, and we had a very minimal story line, so we called it the Nutcracker Suite.
“I built on it the next year, and I could see this community was hungry for a holiday classic they could come see every year, even if they didn’t have children in the school.”
At the time, she was surprised to learn that many people in Brevard were not familiar with the original script — but it didn’t discourage her. Instead, it sparked a creative interpretation. Wells found inspiration to build her production from a local historic landmark and a collaborator in longtime friend Tom Shoemaker of the South Carolina Governors School for the Arts. “As Tom and I talked, we thought, ‘Why not set it in Brevard? And why not at the Silvermont mansion?’
“I realized there were so many parallels between the Silversteen[s]” — a wealthy family with many industrial concerns in Transylvania County — “who built Silvermont and lived there in the 1920s, and the Silberhaus family of the original Nutcracker and their Silberhaus mansion. Both families were known for big celebrations in their homes, especially during the holidays.”
The setting remains a Christmas party with all of the music, dancing, décor, and gaiety that implies. But rather than recasting the central character, young Clara Silberhaus, as one of the three Silversteen daughters, Wells reimagines Clara as the daughter of a World War I widow and baker who comes down from the mountain with her mother to help.
When Clara gets underfoot, she is dispatched from the kitchen and crosses paths with the youngest Silversteen daughter, Adelaide, known as “Babe” (who went on to be a professional singer in real life). Their friendship grows as the story evolves into the second act, where she and Babe dance together.
Making her debut as Clara — though not her first performance in the Brevard Nutcracker — is 12-year-old Lotus Draegen. She says it was the competition TV show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ that led her to Wells’ studio when her family came to Brevard in 2015. “I was really into the show, and when we moved to Brevard, I wanted to find a ballet studio,” she says. “I was eight, which was kind of old; some of the students start at three! I started in the all-ages beginner-intermediate class, and then moved into Level I class with people my age.
“I loved it right away. I loved the flow of it and how you can connect dance with your emotions. My first public performance was a snow nymph. It was super fun, and I was super excited to do it.”
She is currently Level 4, a five-day-a-week commitment. Nutcracker rehearsals on Saturdays are six-hour days in the studio. “It gets kind of hard to bundle it with school, but dance is really important to me,” she says. “I just make it work.”
Rehearsals begin with a full week immersion in August and continue up until the performance. Shoemaker’s pre-professional caliber students at the Governor’s School rehearse the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Cavalier, Dew Drop, and the Russian in Greenville and arrive the weekend of the ballet to join the cast, setting a high aspirational barre for Wells’ students.
She is introducing five new dances — the Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Toy Soldier, and Waltz of the Flowers — to the 2019 Nutcracker, which, as always, will be presented in Jones Auditorium the Sunday night before Thanksgiving.
“Brevard is such a special place,” says Wells. “I love that our Nutcracker has become a tradition.”
Brevard Ballet School (242 South Broad St.). Brevard Ballet presents The Nutcracker on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 5pm at Jones Auditorium at Brevard High School (609 Country Club Road). Tickets are available through the website (brevardballet.org) or at D.D. Bullwinkel’s (828-862-4700, ddbullwinkels.com).