By Carrina Stanton / For the Chronicle
Nancy and Mickey Gunter of Centralia Ballet Academy say it hasn’t been easy getting their students dancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After all the masking, temperature checks and working with doctors to figure out best practices, they said being able to perform in-person ballet performances was a reward for their hard work.
“After everything we’ve been through, it’s exciting,” said Nancy Gunter.
Centralia Ballet Academy will perform “The Nutcracker” this year from December 4-5 at the Corbet Theater on the Centralia College campus. Centralia Ballet Academy was established 13 years ago and has offered a full production of “The Nutcracker” since 2017. Prior to 2017, the studio offered performances highlighting portions of classical ballet during the Christmas season. Last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the studio created a movie-style version of “The Nutcracker” which was offered for download.
“It was really cool to have people all over the world buy it and say great things about it,” Mickey Gunter said of last year’s deal. “And we mostly did it because we didn’t want another thing to be undone.”
Featuring Tchaikovsky’s original score, Centralia Ballet Academy’s production of “The Nutcracker” is the classic Christmas ballet many are used to with a few twists. It follows the story of Clara Silberhaus (danced by Brianna Smith) who receives a Nutcracker doll from Drosselmeyer (danced by Isaac McKenzieSullivan) at her family’s Christmas party. In the night, Clara wakes up to find an epic battle between rats and mice led by the Rat King (danced by Tess McMurry) and the toy soldiers led by the Toy Soldier General (danced by Violet Davis) and his Nutcracker. , which grew to life size. Clara and her Nutcracker defeat the Rat King and travel together to Candy Land where she meets characters such as: the Snow Queen (danced by Magenta Wilhelmi) and the Snow King (danced by Marius Williams, Jr.) and their snowflakes (danced by McKenna Bryan, Brooke Larson, Tess McMurry, Lydia Smith and Jenova Williams); Chef Ginger (danced by Caitlyn Rose) and Her Gingerbread Cookies (danced by Hannah Denney, Auria Franks, Ana Perez-Misner, Chloe Tinkham and Crystal Tinkham); and the Sugar Plum Fairy (danced by Jenova Williams) and its Cavalier (danced by Jacob Mecham).
Mickey Gunter worked with a consultant who had worked as a Disney Imagineer to create ways to make Centralia Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” a more exciting and immersive experience. One of the ways they have used their Imagineering training is to expand the stories of some of the characters. For example, Centralia Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” assumes that the Silberhaus family had a distant relative who worked in imports and who was kidnapped on the high seas by pirate rats. Before escaping his captors, he stole a jeweled star that now sits atop the family’s Christmas tree – an explanation for the Rat King and his army attacking the family.
Another way they plan to use Imagineering in the coming years is to offer an English-style village that audience members can explore outside of the theater for a more immersive experience. Since creating areas where people congregate is not allowed by Centralia College due to COVID-19 regulations, this year they plan to offer “to-go” boxes filled with items on the Nutcracker theme that members of the public can purchase. Next year they hope to add the expanded entrance.
“This year is going to be a great show, but next year we’ll have all the bells and whistles so people can experience the show off stage,” Mickey Gunter said.
Although this is the first in-person offering of Centralia Ballet Academy’s “Nutcracker” since the start of COVID-19, this will not be the first live performance of these dancers since the start of the pandemic. They were able to hold their June recital outdoors at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds, then held a sold-out version of “Sleeping Beauty” at Red Barn Studios. Mickey Gunter said they found ways to create show opportunities because they felt their dancers needed the outlet.
“We want to make sure these children have opportunities and memories that allow them to get through this,” Mickey Gunter said.
The Centralia Ballet Academy version of “The Nutcracker” will feature approximately 50 dancers, ranging from children to adult members of the community. One of the most heartwarming parts of this year’s rehearsals was seeing the knowledge that is now being passed down between the dancers in some of the lead roles. Former dancers, some of whom have graduated and no longer dance at Centralia Ballet, returned to work with this year’s dancers.
“It’s that sense of community,” Mickey Gunter said.
Nancy Gunter said mentorship has always been a big part of the dance experience in the “Nutcracker” cast. Older, more experienced dancers are paired with newer dancers in a big brother/big sister program.
“Sometimes it’s not much, but youngsters love it when older kids are ready and willing to help them out,” Nancy Gunter said. “It helps Mick and me and honestly sometimes it seems like they understand better when they learn it from someone they’ve looked up to.”
There will be no tickets for Centralia Ballet Academy’s “The Nutcracker” sold out the door and performances are expected to sell out. Mickey Gunter explained that this is because their online ticketing platform creates social distancing between ticket blocks as tickets are purchased, which would be much more difficult at the event. While available, the Corbet Theater Weeping Room can be purchased as a “luxury suite” experience for a group of up to 10 people per performance.
Those seated in the Deluxe Suite can watch without a mask and will be served refreshments.