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December 22, 2005

Stage Matters

A child's Christmas in Arcata: The Nutcracker


photo of Sam CampbellOutside, the moon was bright behind a scrim of luminous clouds in a cold and mostly clear sky. True, there wasn't snow -- not until a few faux flakes floated down on the Van Duzer stage -- but it was as close as Arcata comes to a fine winter night.

Inside, in the opening night crowd for this year's The Nutcracker, performed by North Coast Dance last Friday at HSU, there were a lot of children -- possibly more than were in the show. Children on both sides of the footlights are a major reason this is a popular community event during the winter holiday season across North America and around the world.

It's a good show for adults, too, even those who don't have a child in it. The NCD production has plenty of evocative sets, handsome costumes and magical lighting to entertain any eye. Artistic Director Danny Furlong fashioned a crisp first act, emphasizing the narrative, with lots of movement and comic asides, to set up the second act of mostly dancing, to the familiar Tchaikovsky music.

Right: Sam Campbell. Photo by Marty Sohl.

But I kept thinking about a child's experience. Children in the audience were brought along perhaps to cheer a sibling, or for the Christmas pageantry, or because they wanted to see the ballerinas (little girls in particular love ballerinas, as surely as they love purple). But The Nutcracker may often be a child's first exposure to live dance, or even live performance.

Seeing other children onstage -- or other teenagers -- presents the possibility that they, too, could enter this world that looks and feels quite a bit different from anything they've seen on American Idol.

On Friday night they saw children perform with the presence, discipline and conviction of the adults onstage with them. Delia Bense-Kang was a perfect Clara, bringing the audience along on her journey with charm and economy. Tyler Elwell as her brother Fritz was shrewd casting, and he did his job -- advancing the story and shining in his dance moments. This was true of the other children as well.

Young dancers at every stage of learning and experience got the invaluable benefit of working alongside consummate professionals like Brook Broughton (the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Andre Reyes (Cavalier Ricola), who brought talent and standards accrued from dancing prominent roles in major companies such as the San Francisco Ballet. There were other experienced and skilled guest and local adult dancers to admire and emulate.

Between the beginners and the veterans were dancers of various ages and levels of experience. Not everyone in such a large cast can be mentioned, but they all gave disciplined performances at minimum, with some flashes of fire and exhilarating moments.

With his engaging, athletic performance, young Sam Campbell was a crowd favorite, the first Humboldt Native American dancer (Hupa) to play the title role of the Nutcracker here.

Many of the younger dancers have already trained for years, and at each stage of their development take on new challenges to excel at exacting forms of dance and performance. Some will continue, perhaps to pursue a professional career elsewhere, or to find their fulfillment close to home. Others may find their passion fading as their ambitions and bodies change, but they will apply lessons learned to other aspects of their lives. Even to have simply experienced the gangly long limbs of late childhood and adolescence redeemed by the grace of dance is no small thing.

The Nutcracker:
A Helpful Plot Synopsis

A little girl with a bunch of weird relatives gets a toy soldier for Christmas but her brother breaks it, so she's sad but gets out of bed that night to protect the nutcracker-soldier from the mice. Suddenly she's in a magic kingdom through the wardrobe where she has adventures with magical creatures such as the Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Asia. Then after the Triwizards Tournament she has to protect her home from a couple of goofy robbers, while her grandfather talks to ghosts with English accents, her father has a transformational experience down at the Building and Loan and she learns the true spirit of Christmas from Snoopy. Or something like that.

They may retain the lesson Agnes DeMille wrote that she learned from Martha Graham, who told her: "There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it is lost ... It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable ... It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."

And they may become wise and still-passionate stalwarts of the arts audience, despite any melancholies of races lost and roads not taken. If so, they may well be bringing their children to a future production of The Nutcracker.

Finally, this tradition of The Nutcracker most clearly connects the artists to the community, and the community to their artists. During intermission, audience veterans of past shows chatted about what was added, while others tried to keep their wrapped bouquets fresh for their loved one(s) onstage.

At the lobby reception after the show, Sam Campbell's extended family gathered around him for lots of photos -- both of his grandmothers were there, he said, and several aunties. It was late for the younger dancers (one changed from her costume directly into her pajamas), but two girls made the rounds of the (slightly) older ballerinas, getting them to write remembrances in their programs.

But despite the festivities, it wasn't quite Christmas -- the dancers had a matinee and another evening show the next day, plus the final matinee on Sunday. Art means work as well as glory. For those privileged to participate, that's part of the magic, too.


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