FAIRBANKS — All week, big mice and little mice, flowers and snowflakes, party children and elves have been gathering at Hering Auditorium after school to rehearse for the North Star Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” showing tonight through Sunday.
During a recent rehearsal, little mice — the youngest members of the cast — sat along the edge of the Hering stage facing the set, a Victorian living room, complete with Christmas tree. They squirmed a bit, watching Artistic Director Norman Shelburne instruct the girls in the big mice roles. Finally, he turned and quietly addressed the smaller ones.
“I have to have your attention the whole time,” he said. “I’m going to change something.”
The young dancers watched intently as he demonstrated the slight change in choreography. Then it was their turn to go through the scene with the mouse king, nutcracker and soldiers. The little mice scurried around the stage with rapidly tiptoeing feet and mouse-claw hands. Shelburne stood at the front of the stage, one hand over his mouth, watching them keenly. From the theater, it was easy to see that he was smiling.
The little mice and all the other company dancers have been rehearsing for this weekend’s performances since auditions in September, so what might look to an outsider like controlled chaos is actually a smoothly running system of dancers, volunteers, parents, grandparents and friends.
“I’ve been getting kids on stage for 10 years, and I’ve never had a kid turn to me and say, ‘I don’t know where to go,’” Allison York, a longtime Nutcracker volunteer, said. “They are so well-prepared and so well-rehearsed.”
She stood backstage with volunteer coordinator Alison Zusi-Cobb, checking in dancers as they entered the theater for rehearsal. One by one, children walked up and gave their names and their roles: soldier, mouse, party boy, Clara. York’s daughter, Ellen, a senior dancer in the company, escorted each young dancer to gathering areas backstage.
A former dancer and now mother of a company member, Zusi-Cobb said, “One reason I do this is that my parents helped like crazy when I was a young dancer. It’s in my blood; ballet is so in my memories.”
On stage or during rehearsals, things occasionally happen.
“There’s a little illness or a little injury, but no major catastrophes,” York said.
“Mostly, it has to do with party boys that have gone AWOL exploring the theater,” Zusi-Cobb said. “That’s why we have two parents for the party boys — and there are only four boys.”
On stage, everything is seamless as the dancers create the Christmas party scene or the magical dances in the second act, the Land of Sweets.
“Once, the flowers walked out and the finale music came on,” Ellen York recalled. “Norman had prepared us that if something does go wrong, we should act like it didn’t, so we stood there in position until the flower music came on.”
She added, “Norman always tells us, ‘That’s why we have rehearsals.’ We make our mistakes in rehearsals.”
Allison York agreed, adding, “The roles build on each other. Each year the dancers take on new roles that add on one or two new elements. This year, there are so many siblings together. They tell each other what to expect.”
Ellen York recalled the time when she danced the role of Clara.
“I tried hard to remember to smile,” she said. “Now, as Clara’s mother, I can remind her. We’re a community.”
York and Zusi-Cobb note that this spirit of performance drew five former North Star dancers back this year to help with performances either on stage or backstage. Last year’s sugar plum and cavalier, Deanna Karlheim and Hannes Van Wessenhove, respectively, are also returning to perform with the company.
On the stage, ending rehearsal, Shelburne gathered the dancers together.
“A very wonderful rehearsal,” he says. “I appreciate it very much. I’m sure we can bring that cohesion and concentration to the stage.”
York notes, “It will be a beautiful performance.”
If you go
• What: The Nutcracker
• When: 8 p.m. tonight; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. All performances are at Hering Auditorium.
• Tickets: $26 reserved; $22 adult; $10 for children 12 and under; $18 for students 12-23 and seniors 65 and older. Available at www.thenorthstarballet.org, at the North Star Ballet Studio, Enchanted Forest Toys, Bentley Mall Safeway, Armed Forces YMCA on Fort Wainwright and at the door. For more information call the North Star Ballet Studio at 451-8800.
Cindy Hardy is a freelance writer and English instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks