By: Brandy McDonnell, NEWSOK
Jonathan Batista has an instinctive reaction when he hears the familiar enchanting sounds of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
“I have a deep breath − I don’t know why − every time it starts,” said Batista, one of Oklahoma City Ballet’s principal dancers, singing out the memorable instrumentation and then inhaling and exhaling audibly. “I think the music just takes me when I hear it. It’s so beautiful, it fills you up each time and each time and each time. You’re never tired of it. It’s never enough.”
OKC Ballet will bring the perennial holiday favorite back to the Civic Center Friday through Dec. 23, with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky’s legendary score live. The annual Nutcracker Tea in the Kingdom of Sweets on Dec. 22 with sweeten the run with more seasonal fun.
“Since we do it every year, I like to think that it’s always somebody’s first time seeing it – or a kid’s first time being in it,” said soloist Amy Potter, who will play the Sugar Plum Fairy in some shows and perform the Arabian dance in others.
Artistic Director Robert Mills has kept his version of “The Nutcracker” faithful to the original libretto that premiered in 1892 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the seasonal fantasy centers on a girl named Clara who goes on a magical adventure involving a mouse army, enlivened toy soldiers and a Sugar Plum Fairy after she receives a handcrafted nutcracker as a Christmas gift from the enigmatic Dr. Drosselmeyer.
A party is going on at the Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet, as the company rehearses the opening scenes of “The Nutcracker” on a recent weekday afternoon. Alongside some of the more familiar standouts, two younger members of the corps de ballet are practicing for their OKC debuts in the roles of Clara and Hans, Drosselmeyer’s apprentice.
“In this production, actually Clara and Hans, they are some of the most challenging (roles): very technical, very artistic. They never leave the stage; they’re always telling the story. … So, it’s really great to see Mayu Odaka and Randoph Fernandez having their debuts,” Batista said.
“‘The Nutcracker’ has a tradition of directors really watching for dancers, where they continue with dancers, where they promote dancers, where they put dancers in different roles … and they test the dancers, the young dancers.’”
The iconic Christmas story becomes a touchstone for many young dancers at the Oklahoma City Ballet Yvonne Chouteau School, Mills said.
“There are girls in our school that are in our highest level that might be cast in ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ for the first time, and they get to dance in the corps de ballet with the professional girls. So, it’s a special time for that dancer. Or it’s a special time for the child that got to be a party girl because she began as an angel. So, it’s like these rites of passage over time for a lot of children, and that’s always fun,” Mills said.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Batista calls himself “a ‘Nutcracker’ kid.”
“I think ‘Nutcracker’ was my first production ever. So, it takes me back to when I was a kid. Then, with English National Ballet, when I was a soldier, that’s why I have such a spot in my heart for the soldier scene,” said Batista, an English National Ballet School graduate, who is alternating between playing one of the Spanish dancers and the Cavalier.
“I always go down to watch that scene because it just takes me back and it’s so special.”
As a youngster, Potter was cast one year as Clara and noticed that another girl in the role had her ears pierced.
“That year I got my ears pierced, because I was like ‘I can’t do Clara without earrings, Mom,’” she recalled with a laugh. “So, I got to get my ears pierced that year.”
Potter said she enjoys interacting with the student dancers, whose roles range from bakers and gingerbread cookies to angels and clowns in the yuletide fairy tale.
“You’re like ‘Wow, I was there once.’ You were in their shoes for your first show, and their whole family is there to see them be an angel. It is special … and it’s so many people’s family traditions to come every year. I like to keep that in the back of my mind, because it’s easy to be like, ‘Ugh, “Nutcracker” again.’ But if you think about it that way, it is special,” Potter said.
She said she recently got the chance to watch the company performance instead of dancing in it, and it was a surprisingly emotional experience.
“I got goose bumps and teary-eyed when it started to snow. It is just so magical,” she said.