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'The Nutcracker': Performances share common thread of giving to the community

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Dance Arts Theatre will present “The Nutcracker” this weekend at ECU’s Wright Auditorium.

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By Kim Grizzard

Friday, December 8, 2017

The life-size nutcracker soldier that appears to stand guard outside a rehearsal studio at the North Carolina Academy of Dance Arts is not alone this year. Behind him hangs a small cloth version, centered on a one-of-a-kind quilt commemorating the beloved ballet “The Nutcracker.”

Unlike the soldier, this keepsake is not destined to become a fixture at the studio. The quilt, which depicts in silhouette a dozen scenes from the ballet, will be raffled as a benefit for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Created by the grandmothers of two dancers, it is a fitting symbol of a production that for most of the last three decades has become part of the fabric of the community.

“The Nutcracker” will celebrate its 26th season this weekend with three performances in ECU’s Wright Auditorium. First staged by the nonprofit Dance Arts Theatre in 1985, the production has been an annual holiday event since 2001.

Since then, “The Nutcracker” has generated more than $165,000 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals through an endeavor that began before any of the students in this year’s production ever slipped their feet into a pair of ballet shoes.

“When you first start out (in “The Nutcracker”), it’s part of being in a bigger production with older girls and finally reaching that milestone,” said Marye Amanda McDaniel, a senior at Greenville Christian Academy who has been studying dance at NCDA for 15 years. “As you get older, you start to realize the benefits it has for the community and how you’re not just doing it for enjoyment, you’re doing it to help others.”

CMN Hospitals “Miracle Child” Piper Wilhide, 5, who was treated at the James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital for cancer when she was 4 weeks old, will make a cameo appearance in Saturday’s matinee performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Featuring a cast of 125, including five guest performers, the popular Christmas ballet tells the story of a little girl whose beloved nutcracker soldier is transformed into a handsome prince who takes her on a magical journey.

“Every little girl, at some point in her little dance career, dreams of being in ‘The Nutcracker,” said Dance Arts Theatre Artistic Director Sherryl Tipton.

For Taylor Pinney, who has the part of Clara Silberhaus, that dream began the first time she saw “The Nutcracker.” She knew immediately that she wanted to be part of it.

“I think all of us have a list of parts that we want to be one day, starting out being a little kid on the staircase,” said Taylor, a South Central High School senior who has been studying dance for 15 years. “It’s crazy how one little part can get you hooked.”

Taylor is one of a handful of seniors who have been performing in Dance Arts Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” since they were old enough to audition. Children as young as second grade are cast as rosebuds in “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act.

Arendell Parrott Academy senior Bobbie Leigh Barbour has a soft spot for that first role. Even after a decade has passed, she still remembers giving flowers to the character of Clara.

“That one thing was really exciting for me,” she said, laughing.

Bobbie Leigh will be featured in the Spanish dance, “Chocolate from Spain” in her final appearance in “The Nutcracker.” After 14 years of dance, she is sad to see it end.

“We’re just going to be lying on the floor in the dressing room crying (after Sunday’s performance),” she said. “It happens every year. People always cry.”

D.H. Conley High School senior Kirsten McMahon said Christmas will not be the same after she dances her final role in “The Nutcracker.” Her entire family is involved in the production. Sisters Kaylee and Sophia are both dancers. Their parents pitch in with props and costumes.

“Once I graduate, I’ll be the only one not doing ‘The Nutcracker,’” Kirsten said. “But hopefully I’ll have time next year to come and help.”

It is not uncommon for alumni to return for “The Nutcracker” long after they have taken their final bows as performers. Former dancers volunteer to help with quick changes backstage. Mothers of girls who danced in previous productions still stop by early in the season to help Production Manager Lisa Kannen sew costumes in what she jokingly calls her “sweat shop.”

“I think it’s so neat to see these moms just randomly show up,” Tipton said. “... It’s interesting to me how many kids come back just to be here because I think in their lives this had a special place.

“Former students that may have graduated from here, they’re probably in their 40s, bring their children to see ‘The Nutcracker.’ They drive from Wilmington or they’ll drive from Raleigh or different areas where they live to do that. It definitely is something that once you’ve done it, I think there’s always a connection.”

Dance Arts Theatre will present “The Nutcracker Ballet” at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at ECU’s Wright Auditorium. Net proceeds from this event will be donated to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals to benefit the James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital at Vidant Medical Center. Tickets are $35 for adults and $28 for children. Call 328-4788 or visit nutcrackerballetdat.com.

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