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Upholding the Holiday Tradition of ‘The Nutcracker’

Upholding the Holiday Tradition of ‘The Nutcracker’

A behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to plan, choreograph, and perform The Nutcracker, a beloved holiday show.

At 1pm on a recent Saturday, Beth Fritz-Logrea ushers all of her ballet students into the studio to begin rehearsing the snow scene from Act I of The Nutcracker. The girls stand in position and Fritz-Logrea walks up to them to go over placement on the stage at Logrea Dance Academy in Ossining. Each girl is given a number, which corresponds to a marker on the stage designating where she should stand. Twenty minutes after first inviting the students in, they’re all in place and Fritz-Logrea walks to the front of the studio, sits in a director’s chair, and cues her husband, Jean Logrea, to start the music from the top of the snow scene. Rehearsal has begun.

The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition that kids and adults look forward to each year. First performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, the ballet is Alexandre Dumas père’s adaptation of the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Despite those roots, it was not until 1964 that The Nutcracker gained popularity. That’s when George Balanchine—considered by many as the “Father of American Ballet”—debuted his rendition of the ballet at New York City Center.

In Balanchine’s words, his Nutcracker was to be “full-length and expensive,” according to Vanity Fair. He envisioned a grandiose tree for the background, and somehow managed to get a $40,000 tree commissioned to make the magic of The Nutcracker feel as real as possible.

That magic, as well as the tradition of this ballet, are still very much alive and well today—at major venues such as Lincoln Center as well as at regional and local theaters seemingly everywhere. No matter where it is produced, the grace and beauty on display is the result of countless hours of hard work by dedicated dancers, many of them teens at local high schools.

A Ballet Family

Westchester Ballet Company’s version of this classic has been the responsibility of co-directors Jean Logrea and Beth Fritz-Logrea since they became owners of the dance troupe in 1985. A year later, they founded the Logrea Dance Academy and named it the official school of the Westchester Ballet Company. 

Though Fritz-Logrea stopped personally performing in the production 25 years ago, she is both the choreographer and director of the show. Her husband has played the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer for the past 31 years, while their son, Nick, will be performing in his 25th Nutcracker show in several different roles: the butler in the party scene, the Mouse King, the Arabian pas de deux, and a soloist for the company’s Ukranian variation—an added scene that is not usually performed in other Nutcracker productions. 

Nick says the best part about performing each year is being on stage. “There’s something about being on stage and being in front of a large group of people and performing for them then getting the satisfaction of them applauding you at the end,” Nick says. “It’s a big adrenaline rush, something that I’ve loved from the very beginning.”

Logrea Dance Academy
Photo by Samantha Neudorf

Logrea Dance Academy students rehearse the finale from The Nutcracker in October.

Balancing High School with Rehearsal

Back at rehearsal, there are nearly 28 girls who have been cast in the snow scene, divided into two groups, each of which will perform at two of the four shows. Fritz-Logrea runs through the scene with the first cast for the first time this season. All of these dancers are wearing pointe shoes and are between ages 11-18, including the dance studio’s three graduating seniors: Charlotte Chandler, Clare Hammonds, and Molly Powers.

These three girls have been dancing for 15 years and have been performing in the Westchester Ballet Company’s Nutcracker for 10-12 years each. Powers and Chandler first started out as mice and Hammonds was a page; this year, they each have three roles—Chandler, a 17-year-old from Cross River, is a snow soloist, Chinese soloist, and the Dew Drop Fairy; Hammonds, a 17-year-old from Ossining, is a snow soloist, in the gigue variation, and is the flower soloist; Powers, a 17-year-old from Hawthorne, is a party scene guest, in the snow scene, and is a flower soloist.

The teens dance ballet six days a week, which is how they’ve grown close to one another. “We’re all such good friends and the community surrounding us helps to put on the performance,” Hammonds says. “That plays a huge part in performance week for us.”

The most challenging part for these seniors is juggling college applications and extracurricular activities with dance rehearsals six days a week. Saturday rehearsals for The Nutcracker are four hours long.

“This teaches you time management because you’re here so often, but you need to focus on your studies, too,” says Powers, a member of the National Honor Society at her school. 

The end of the snow scene transitions into one in which Clara, the main character, travels to the Land of Sweets with the Nutcracker Prince. Clara is played by 14-year-old Rylee Carpenter of Ossining. She has played Clara for the past three years, and aspires to perform on Broadway when she is older.

“I love being able to act, especially doing Clara,” Carpenter says. “I love the feeling of acting and dancing because it just lets me express myself more.” She also takes theater and singing lessons in addition to dance. 

Tim Bohrman, a 14-year-old from Carmel, is Logrea Dance Studio’s oldest boy, and has been dancing for 10 years. He will play Fritz, the lead soldier, and the Chinese soloist in this year’s performance, and this is his first year as a soloist. “A lot of the guy parts are a lot of fun because there’s usually a lot of cool jumps and turns,” he says.

Bohrman started taking ballet after his older sister—who is now 20 and a trainee with the Orlando Ballet Company in Florida—started taking lessons. Though Bohrman also takes modern and tap at the dance studio, he says his favorite dance is ballet and intends to join a ballet company, just like his older sister.

Planning the Production

To mount an ambitious production such as The Nutcracker, the Logreas start thinking about the show as early as late July or early August. Right after their spring season is over in May, they sit down and discuss which dancers are returning and start calling guest dancers to see if they will be available.

Auditions for this year’s Nutcracker were held in mid-September, and are typically open to whoever would like to be a part of it. Students at Logrea Dance Studio are not required to participate in The Nutcracker, and they are also not guaranteed a role just because they are a part of the company. Rehearsals begin a week after auditions and run until performance week—Dec. 16-18 this year.

In order to ensure stage the production as planned, there are also many logistics to be considered. Westchester Ballet Company board members must consult with the performance venue—the Westchester County Center in White Plains—and the county Parks and Recreation department to take care of contracts. They also have to coordinate with the stage crew at County Center about technicalities such as lighting and set changes.

The Logreas are able to bring in guest dancers from ballet companies around the world because of the connections they have made over the years as ballet dancers themselves. Beth and Jean met when they both danced at the Graz Opera House in Austria.

There are usually four to five guest dancers who perform in their show, and the Logreas say it is good experience for their students to see what it is like to dance among a professional. “[To see] how they carry themselves on and off the stage, how they prepare for the production in the warm-up class, how early they arrive to the theater—it’s just good for the kids to witness,” Logrea says.

The Nutcracker
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Clara, as played by Rylee Carpenter, holds a Nutcracker doll in the 2014 show.

Keeping the Magic Alive

After the Mouse King is slayed on stage during the performance, a screen comes down, the Nutcracker Prince comes to life, and Drosselmeyer introduces him to Clara. The music crescendos, the lights dim, and dry ice blocks are placed to create the illusion of a dreamlike fog—then the snow scene begins. Nick says that is his favorite scene from the show.

“I know dancers that have graduated from us and have come back to watch… they still say to this day that they always cry during the beginning of the snow scene,” Nick says. “I still get chills every time that music comes up.” 

Logrea recalls a time when a college student visited Westchester and watched the show—particularly the transition into the snow scene. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I will never forget that in my life,’” Logrea says.

It’s what every Nutcracker performer everywhere hopes for, performance after performance of this holiday-season tradition.

Main image: The party scene from the Westchester Ballet Company’s 2015 production of The Nutcracker.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

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