One of the Loudoun holiday season’s most beloved entertainment spectacles—the Loudoun Ballet Company’s full-length production of “The Nutcracker” is the very essence of a German Christmas celebration.
It recalls memorable characters and scenes, including the evil Mouse King and his army of mice battling against Nutcracker and his troupe of toy soldiers, Drosselmeyer, the clock and toy maker, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Cavalier, Clara and her brother Fritz, and the Land of the Sweets.
Originally written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816 as “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the story was eventually made into a ballet by Marius Petipa following revisions by French author Alexandre Dumas, with music by equally famous Russian composer Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Loudoun Ballet Company’s annual production began with founder Sheila Hoffmann Robertson in 1993. She is a direct descendant of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Although Robertson has moved out of the area, the tradition has carried on.
And it’s a slightly revised version of the original production that is performed today.
LBC Artistic Director and choreographer Maureen Miller began working on “The Nutcracker” that first year. She’s made some tweaks to the second act, mostly to play to the strengths of her individual dancers, but says Robertson’s party scene and the plot has remained unchanged. For Miller, the biggest reward is to watch dancers she’s known and tutored since childhood grow into their roles.
Two of those dancers, who perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, are now in their 12th year with the company. Nancy Etro, from Round Hill, is about to turn 18, while Meghan Walther, of Waterford, is 17. Emily Maroni is the third Sugar Plum Fairy.
This will be Etro’s third year in the role, and she confessed to some nerves as the production neared show time. A shortened version of the ballet in which certain scenes were performed at a tea at Salamander Resort & Spa on Dec. 6 helped get her into the groove.
She said the audience always connects with Clara’s dream of the dancing fairy.
“It really is a dream in their imagination. People come up and say, ‘I didn’t want it to end,’ or ‘that was amazing,’” said Etro, who has been dancing since age 6. The role requires a lot of stamina, she said, noting the Sugar Plum Fairy has three separate dances.
Walther said she has wanted to dance “forever.” There are photos of her around the house in her tutu, dancing, when she was about 3, she said. She first realized it was her ambition when she was in seventh grade.
“I wanted to be really good, and work hard,” she recalled.
She also is in her third year as a Sugar Plum Fairy, and knows she wants to continue dancing in college. “I would die if I couldn’t dance,” she said, noting the satisfaction she gets from the performances. “I love being on the stage. I can’t stop smiling.”
Emily Maroni is 16. She’s been with the LBC for only four years, but has progressed rapidly in the company, despite tearing her ACL last January. This is her first year in the role. Her favorite dance is the solo—because that most closely shows the Sugar Plum Fairy’s character.
Maroni, who hopes to join a professional company, enjoys getting fully into her role—“becoming the character and getting my own personality into it.”
Isabelle Millet, Caroline O’Brien and Kara Heidorn, perform the role of Clara, while professional dancers Norbert Nirewicz, Brian Murphy and Carlton Paynter perform the roles of the Cavalier, Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer, respectively.
Behind the Scenes
The LBC production is an intensely family affair, in which children have grown to maturity and their parents have taken on a variety of roles in the company. That’s especially true for “The Nutcracker,” the company’s biggest and most ambitious production, involving a cast of about 150.
Walther’s parents, Peter and Jennifer, have been involved for years. Peter Walther is now in his fourth year on the board of directors, serving as vice chairman. Jen Walther helps out with merchandise sales.
For the Walthers, the satisfaction of seeing their daughter fulfill her passion is everything. “Seeing your child happy and successful, and the hard work she’s put in,” is all the reward they need, Peter Walther said.
They plan to continue their involvement with the company for several more years to ensure a good succession as younger families come in.
Whether it’s front of the house management, casting, sets, backstage management, merchandise and fundraising, or costumes—producing the classic Christmas ballet each year takes a lot of hard work, time and money, Walther said.
The financial outlay is considerable.
For starters, the rent for the stage at Dominion High School has risen from $3,000 to $18,000—a big jump, especially when “The Nutcracker” is the company’s largest revenue generator, according to Walther.
“We’re trying to work on that with the schools and Parks and Rec,” he said, noting the spring and fall productions are not as robust as “The Nutcracker.” And moving the sets to eight storage units split between Leesburg and Purcellville requires renting two trucks.
Production costs are substantial. “The Nutcracker” is noted for its beautiful costumes. Donna Nachajski, now serving as vice president of production, has been in charge of costumes for the past eight years.
She has created scores of costumes. “We do have to alter some each year,” she said, noting since 2000, most of the costumes have been redone. Some will last up to 15 years, while those of the Sugar Plum Fairy, for instance, may only last five years.
Donna and Mark Nachajski, a former chairman of the company, are the parents of a former LBC dancer—Catherine—who danced the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. She now dances with the Louisville Ballet.
Kathy Davenport is responsible for merchandise sales and fundraising. She sells ads for the program as well as sponsorships. One of her projects is to raise more than $2,500 to buy another Nutcracker tree for the party scene. To that end, the merchandise table at the performances will include time capsule ornaments for $50 each, to be used annually over the next decade.
“People fill them with mementos, and photos, and in 2025 we’ll reveal [what’s inside] them,” Davenport said.
Merchandise sales bring in revenues second only to the sale of tickets. Nutcracker boutiques at venues such as last Sunday’s tea party at Salamander Resort & Spa also do well.
Danny O’Brien is in his 10th year of doing backstage work and set construction. Manager for the past four years, O’Brien has a crew of 40, including a core group of about 15. “They all pretty proud and loyal dads,” said O’Brien said, whose daughter, Catherine, dances as Clara and their son, Kieran, performs in an acting role.
Every year, the sets require some degree of repair. There isn’t time or money to recreate the sets, although the company now does have a new backdrop, created by a professional artist.
“I love being able to be part of my daughter’s activities and seeing her mature,” O’Brien said. This year, for the first time in years, he plans to abandon his post and watch her from the front of the stage. “I tell all the dads [that backstage] are the best seats in the house.”
When: Friday, Dec. 18, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 19, 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 20, 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion High School, 21326 Augusta Drive, Sterling
Tickets: Advance/$27 premium reserved; $22/reserved adults; $15/age 12 and younger and 60 and older. At the door all seats/$30.