50 years of ‘Nutcracker’: Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley adds to costumes sets, brings dancers old and new to classic
Celebrating the 50th annual production of “The Nutcracker,” the longest-running “Nutcracker” in the Lehigh Valley, the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania Youth Ballet brings this glorious holiday ballet to Zoellner Arts Center, Bethlehem, 1 and 4 p.m. Dec 15 and and 2 p.m. Dec. 16.
A 50th “Nutcracker Celebration” takes place after the Dec. 16 performance at Hotel Bethlehem. The honorary chair for the celebration is Dr. Joseph Roy, superintendent of Bethlehem Area School District.
Karen Kroninger Knerr, Artistic Director of BGLV and former student of the Guild, says there are exciting changes in this year’s “Nutcracker.” Some costumes are from the original 1968 production and upgrades were very much needed. This year there are new costumes for the Spanish and Arabian Leads, and the corps of Waltz of the Flowers, the Snow Corps, Marzipan, Party Girls and Clara.
“We have so many initiatives with costumes this year. After 50 years, we needed some freshening up,” says Knerr. “The piece that I’m most excited about is the new living room scene in Act I.”
The four-piece, hand-painted set is a stunning improvement over the previous one, which was more than 30 years old. “The design was by a man named Carl Sprague. He’s done a lot of scenic design on some major [films] such as ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’” Knerr says.
Sprague has designed sets for film, theater, opera and dance for 30 years. He designs sets for Albany Berkshire Ballet, Moscow Ballet, Center City Ballet, and American Repertory Ballet.
There will be new choreography for the Spanish Leads, Candy Cane Lead and Chinese Leads. The Chinese dance has an elaborate new dragon, which takes three to four dancers to maneuver.
The production boasts a cast of more than 100 performers of professional, pre-professional and BGLV student dancers.
“We have a lot of alumni returning this year, some who danced in the first production,” says Knerr. “Margo Clifford Ging was in the first production and she’s returning [to play] a grandmother.”
Dave McCormack and Suzanne McKenna, who performed as Clara and the Prince in some of the earliest productions, are members of the 50th anniversary committee. McCormack returns to perform as a party parent this year.
“It’s been exciting to reach out to alumni,” says Knerr. “To think of all the people who have seen the production over 50 years, and all the school children -- that’s usually their first introduction to ballet -- to all the dancers who have danced in it over 50 years. The production just holds so many memories for the audience and for the dancers.”
Guest artists are Lillian DiPiazza, playing Sugar Plum Fairy, and Ian Hussey, as her Cavalier. They are dancers with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Ian Hussey was promoted to soloist, then principal dancer, for the 2012-2013 season.
DiPiazza joined Pennsylvania Ballet in 2008, became a soloist for the 2013-2014 season, then a principal dancer in 2016.
“The first production had guest artists from Pennsylvania Ballet, so it seems only fitting to reach back to the dance company 50 years later,” says Knerr.
Tevin Johnson will perform the Candy Cane Lead and Harlequin. The Syracuse native was awarded a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey Professional Division Summer Dance Intensive.
BGLV alumni returning to perform are Natalie Hedrick (Marzipan Lead), a dance major at Indiana University, Bloomington; Jillian Sinko (Spanish Lead), a dance major at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, and Malcolm Burton (Snow King-Arabian Lead), a dance major at Butler University, Indianapolis.
Returning to play the role of Herr Drosselmeyer is Christopher Yoder. “That role can be portrayed many different ways,” says Knerr. “It’s always a fun character to look at. He has to be mysterious, and yet he has to be playful.”
Performances are accompanied by a 48-piece orchestra, the Southside Sinfonietta, under the direction of Eugene Albulescu of Lehigh University, as well as more than 80 area students singing “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and holiday music in the lobby before shows.
Student dancers include Anna Yorgey as Clara (7th grader, Springhouse Middle School, Parkland School District) and Brianna Dougherty (7th grader, Southern Lehigh Intermediate School). Elisabeth Lee plays the Snow Queen (12th grader, Liberty High School, Bethlehem Area School District). Emelia Belet plays Dew Drop (11th grader, Belvidere High School, Belvidere School District).
A tribute page is included in the performance program for photographer Hub Willson, who has photographed BGLV’s “Nutcracker” production for 35 years.
A wonderful collaboration has made the 50-year anniversary production happen. “It does take a team,” says Knerr. “From the board, to the ballet mistress, and the wardrobe mistress, and, of course, all the parents. Those students spend many hours in the studio to make this production happen.
“‘Nutcracker’ is always an exciting time, but this year it’s especially exciting to be leading this endeavor. Fifty consecutive years for any arts organization is a testament to all the hard work that everybody does to make it happen,” says Knerr.
Friends, family, BGLV dancers and students are invited to the 50th anniversary “Nutcracker Celebration Party,” 4:30-7:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Hotel Bethlehem.
“We’re really looking forward to everyone gathering and sharing a lot of memories, and reminiscing.” Knerr says.
Tickets: Zoellner Arts Center box office, 420 E. Packer Avenue, Bethlehem; zoellnerartscenter.org; 610-758-2787