There’s a reason the Garden City Ballet makes room in its cast for every one of the 100 or so people who audition for its annual production of “The Nutcracker." It’s for people like new artistic director Jordan Dehline Burt, who grew up playing nearly every role in the cast before leading another generation through the experience.
“It’s been joyful and I love the magic that happens,” Dehline Burt said. “It’s great to see them grow from year to year.”
Dehline Burt has worked as a choreographer for “The Nutcracker” since 2011 and took over the lead directing role this year for longtime director Michele Antonioli.
This is Garden City Ballet’s 34th year of production on the classic Tchaikovsky ballet. Burt has been working on the show since March, holding auditions, choreographing the show and rehearsing. Jes Mullette has stepped in as the temporary director in the last two weeks because Dehline Burt recently had a baby.
“There are definitely some big shoes to fill,” Dehline Burt said.
Having done the show for her whole life, Dehline Burt recognized there are some aspects to the show that are both crowd-pleasers and important to the cast.
Certain roles — like the flower children, gingersnaps and mice that are filled by younger children — and the costuming that “defines the movement” of the show, cannot be messed with.
“There’s some of those things that you can’t take away,” Dehline Burt said, adding that all the kids were fans of the cannon shot during the battle in Act I.
“They can’t wait for the cannon,” she said. “You can’t get rid of the cannon.”
Some of the changes are more minor — casting the Snow King as a Snow Queen, for instance – or dropping in clues in the opening party scene that reference the second act (look for a bird cage, scarves and fan, among other items).
“I was really trying to connect the two halves that way,” Dehline Burt said.
The opening of Act II has maybe the largest change. In some productions, Clara and the Prince have a conversation about how they got to the Land of Sweets, interwoven among the rest of the scene. Dehline Burt decided to bring that conversation into Garden City’s production for the first time.
And the party scene, a massive, 35-minute scene with dozens of cast members on stage, will always have some variation, so Dehline Burt got a little experimental with the choreography there as well.
“My goal was to continue a lot of those traditions, but put my own style into it,” Dehline Burt said. “We’ll find out after this weekend how well they work.”
Part of the joy of Garden City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” are the elaborately painted backdrops — painstakingly created by UM School of Theatre and Dance students, led by Professor Alessia Carpoca.
In past years, Carpoca and her students have painted the Christmas tree, library for the party scene and the snow scene. This year, they added a new garden backdrop for the opening of Act II.
The backdrop features a large classical Russian-styled gazebo framing a walkway and shrubbery, with some detailing including a small lion's-head fountain in the corner.
Carpoca said the backdrop counted as a final project for her class, as a culmination of all the stage art techniques they’d learned to that point.
Many local theater companies have switched to cheaper digital backgrounds, but Carpoca said there’s still demand out there for hand-painted backdrops.
“It’s a completely different technique,” Carpoca said. “It’s a very valuable skill, because students aren’t learning it.”
She’s even had some art majors take her class to learn the style of painting in such a large medium. This year’s class consisted of a range of students from different majors, and freshman up to graduate students.
“When we are talking about backdrops for the stage, we are talking about giant canvases, essentially,” she said.
The class practices and learns on “only” 4-by-6-foot canvases, before jumping up to the 44-foot backdrop.
“We got done the week of finals and it’s been folded until this week to be used,” Carpoca said.