Many young ballet dancers have visions of sweets dancing in their heads as soon as they put on their first tutu or tights.
“The Nutcracker” is synonymous with ballet and Christmas. It is estimated that across the country, major ballet companies derive approximately 40% of their annual ticket revenue from performances of The Nutcracker alone.
The Pittsburgh Ballet Academy, located in Castle Shannon, has hosted the annual waltz extravaganza for more than a dozen years. Husband and wife duo Steven and Lindsay Piper opened the studio in 2006.
“Two things: we love kids and we love ballet, and we’re definitely more artistic people. We find it hard to think of sitting in a desk all day. It’s obviously a busy job. We mostly work seven days a week, but that allows a lot more freedom and fun to be with the kids,” says Lindsay.
Their local roots have been strong from the very beginning, as Lindsay hails from South Park and grew up dancing.
“I’m from Pittsburgh and we both danced with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater before opening the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh. We danced, we taught and that’s where we always go with it. We always did that, for about 20 years, because we taught around Pittsburgh before opening our own school,” Lindsay explains.
“That’s what we knew best,” Steven says of their decision to open their own school. “We both danced professionally.”
A tradition early in the making, the two can recall their own performances in “The Nutcracker” before tackling the show as instructors, both dancing from a young age. In fact, adventure par excellence is what initially attracted Steven to dance.
“I actually started dancing because of ‘The Nutcracker.’ My older sister and younger brother were in their Nutcracker, and they always needed boys. At first, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ But the next year I saw how much fun my brother was having so I decided to do it and I loved it, so I started lessons in January after that Nutcracker. It was back, my God, in 1986. A long time ago.
Dancers as young as 3 take the stage in the annual show alongside teenagers about to enter their professional dancing careers, and it’s a chance to get them comfortable performing in public.
“It’s a great way to get kids on stage,” Lindsay says. “You have some leeway to create pieces for children.”
Of course, it’s during the holiday season that the temperatures start to drop and families come together. Children and their families look forward to the show year after year, making the show part of their annual traditions.
“It’s something the whole family appreciates. They really support us. They buy a lot of tickets. They tell their friends and neighbors about it. It was really great. It continues to grow every year,” says Lindsay.
About 220 children, all from South Hills and surrounding areas, are expected to take the stage this season. It has evolved to incorporate more dancers. The couple started with only the second act of the ballet.
“At first, it seemed like a huge undertaking to do a two-hour ballet with all these little kids, so we kind of started small,” Lindsay says.
Every year they added parts or an extra stage. Now they perform the full ballet, using all the music and sometimes even supplementing other pieces to transition between parts.
“Our costumes have definitely improved too,” adds Lindsay.
Older participants who have been with the studio for a while are looking forward to the tradition.
“It’s the Nutcracker season that starts in September,” says Steven.
With shows beginning in early December, rehearsals for older students start in late September for eight to ten weeks of practice. Coordinating all these schedules is stressful. Integrating a wide range of skills and ages can also be a logistical challenge. Every year the Pipers think it’s a science, but a new hurdle always pops up.
The hesitant and nervous young people end up loving it, and the backstage atmosphere is festive.
“The kids, they really support each other. It’s really a family-type production. It really brings them together,” Steven says.
Lindsay loves to see dancers progress through the process, when they finally get to grips with the part they were struggling with during stage practice. Children who are in school from the beginning grow up and fend for themselves.
Steven says parents who have never attended one of their performances before are still impressed with the professionalism even though they are mostly kids. It always brings a smile to the couple, as a lot of time goes into the preparation.
“We try to make it look as much like a professional company production as possible, but with young kids,” says Lindsay.
Despite all the stress, it never occurred to them not to. Bringing the students on stage is important, building their confidence. Nutcracker crowds can reach 600 people. Dancing in the studio is great, but the performances are the culmination of all that hard work. It is also a memory that these dancers will keep forever. The two recall graduating dancers commenting on social media about how much they miss it, staying friends with fellow snowflakes and sugar plum fairies.
Steven and Lindsay’s three daughters also grew up dancing, so the whole family looks forward to performances each year.
“Personally, it’s been great to see (our daughters) grow through the different roles,” says Steven.
And the two have the chance to dress up and dance like the parents in the party scene.
“We can’t wait to be there,” Steven laughs.
“I have to say, sometimes I feel like I’m so stressed to get to this point, and then finally, it’s nice to be on stage, even in our old age. We don’t dance professionally anymore, but we can be up there. We’ve been on stage with our own kids in the party scene, so that was fun too,” adds Lindsay.
This year’s performance is bittersweet, as it is the first year their eldest daughter Kyra will not be participating. Instead, she’ll be in her own “Nutcracker” as she studies at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet School, one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions.
Along the way, the Pipers have become adept at keeping all the moving parts of their big production moving: costumes, ticket sales, publicity, music, props, backgrounds, programs, schedules and more.
“Once dress rehearsals are over and we finally get to the day of the show, I feel eerily calm. At this point we’ve done everything we can and things are ready. We get to enjoy the performances. On the last day, we always feel good when it’s over,” Lindsay says.
The holidays are on hold for the Piper family until the final curtain. Thanksgiving is really their first day off, and that’s when the family finally gets the chance to put up the Christmas tree.
“But we are used to it. That’s exactly what we do,” says Lindsay. “And it’s worth it.”
If you are going to
Advance tickets are $15 and will be on sale through Nov. 27 at www.tututix.com/BalletacademyofPittsburgh.
Tickets at the door are $20.
Performances at the Upper St. Clair High School Theater will be:
Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday December 1 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 2 at 2:00 p.m.