Homer's Nutcracker tradition leaps forward: Ballet closes this weekend with a mix of emotions

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2010

At the end of this season's annual Nutcracker Ballet this weekend, expect a few tears with bouquets of roses at the last curtain call.

Photo By Jake Schmutzler
Photo By Jake Schmutzler
Brittney Bordner practices Nov. 28 during a rehearsal of the Nutcracker Ballet.

Now in its 22nd year, a core group of women who have been with the ballet since its beginning have announced their retirement from Homer's traditional holiday production. Leaving are artistic director Jill Berryman, production manager Joy Steward and assistant to Berryman and costume mistress Marianne Markelz. Longtime producer Ken Castner will stay to help with the transition to what he calls "Nutcracker: The Next Generation."

"This is my swan song as artistic director," Berryman said. "I just want to free myself up for a few more things that I like to do."

Steward, who is Berryman's sister, joked about what Steward would do next year.

"These women who have grandchildren seem to want to spend the holiday with their grandchildren," she said. "I don't understand it."

The Nutcracker plays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Mariner Theatre. Admission is $10 at the Homer Bookstore and River City Books in Soldotna.

The first Nutcracker started in 1989 after Berryman had been teaching dance to junior high school girls and thinking about putting on the ballet. Berryman and Steward's sister, Jennifer Strelkauskas, also a dancer and teacher, visited Homer in the summer of 1989 to do a ballet workshop. Strelkauskas suggested doing a suite from the Nutcracker ballet. One thing lead to another, and soon the ballet became an annual tradition.

A dance teacher, Berryman has taught generations of young dancers -- literally. Dancers in recent productions have been children of dancers Berryman taught decades ago. Berryman's dance studio has been critical to nurturing dancers who stay with the production for years. Nutcracker Ballet roles start with mice in the opening party scene and as dancers mature they take on more challenging roles like Clara or the Cavalier Prince.

"That's one thing with the Nutcracker -- instead of having a 4-year program, we have a 10-year program," Castner said. "These kids are starting at 6 and going to 16 and 18."

Berryman will keep that tradition going by continuing her teaching.

"I love the kids. I love the teaching," she said. "I am a teacher at heart. I love sharing and offering kids my love and passion for dance."

By staying on as producer, Castner said he plans to help new talent on the artistic side settle in. Younger theater and dance directors like Jennifer Norton and Berryman's daughter Breezy, dancing as the Dream Clara, have been working on the Nutcracker and could take over future artistic roles.

"The next generation is going to come in and pick it up," Castner said. "It's a great base they're building from."

That base includes about 75 performers and back stage volunteers. Some parents who started when their children were in the Nutcracker have contributed volunteering long after their kids have grown up and moved away. Nutcracker can be a family commitment, with parents bringing food to rehearsals, watching the Green Room, making props and doing the hundreds of tasks needed for the $30,000 production.

"The volunteers are marvelous," Berryman said. "How high? What for? They just do it."

As they do every year, the directors have added some new touches to freshen up the show. A new actor plays the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer.

"He's young, vibrant and magical," Steward said without revealing his secret identity. "Uncle Drosselmeyer really loves the magic thing."

Expect to see some new props, too: magical gift boxes, a beefed up robotic mouse and an animal costume inspired by "The Lion King." New York dancer Josh Palmer, who dances with the Doug Elkins modern dance troupe, plays the lead male role of the Cavalier Prince.

"He's a beautiful dancer," Berryman said.

Steward called him "a young lively dancer."

Berryman, who runs a floatplane business with her husband Jon Berryman, said she doesn't get to relax from the summer tourist season until after Nutcracker. No sooner is she done with the business in October when rehearsals start. That will change next year.

"It's 22 years," Berryman said. "I feel good about it. Transitions and changes are always good. A little scary, but good."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.

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