Growing up with ‘The Nutcracker:’ Dayton dancers cherish childhood performances

Dayton Ballet presents the beloved classic Dec. 9-18

For many families, attending “The Nutcracker” ballet has become a cherished tradition, a greatly anticipated highlight of the holiday season.

That’s true for dancers as well as for their audiences. “It’s unique in that way,” says Karen Russo Burke, artistic director of the Dayton Ballet. “It’s a tradition more than a ballet for both the dancers and the people who come.”

Burke estimates that 99% of those who’ve danced for a number of years have had some sort of experience with Nutcracker. “Almost every company in the nation has produced a Nutcracker,” she says. “When I was younger, we started the weekend of Thanksgiving and didn’t stop until after Christmas.”

The Dayton Ballet will present the glittery tale Dec. 9-18 at the Schuster Center in downtown Dayton. The colorful two-act ballet is the story of little Clara who travels to magical lands with a nutcracker who turns into a prince. The ballet dates back to 1892 when it was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto is adapted from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

Looking back

Burke has been intimately involved with the Nutcracker throughout her life. She began studying dance at age three in a school very much like Dayton Ballet’s. By age 5 she was on stage as a mouse in “The Nutcracker” and then progressed through the ranks: the party, the corps of snow and flowers, the coveted roles of Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy.

Her husband, former Dayton Ballet artistic director Dermont Burke, brought the first full-length presentation of “The Nutcracker” to Dayton in 1993. “I was having my third baby that same week!” his wife explains. “The following year I worked with the children in the second company; I co-choreographed the party and children’s scenes in 2003.”

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Ten years ago, when she became the company’s artistic director, Karen Burke choreographed the show from the ground up, involved in every aspect of the mammoth production: costumes, libretto, scenic design. For the first time, in 2013, the full Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied the dancers. “That opened up the possibilities for a new audience, people who might not have been to the ballet but had been to the orchestra. And it’s great for dancers–and rare nowadays, to have live music. It makes the whole experience so much fuller.”

Burke says every year you try to do better than the year before. There are always obstacles. Most recently, that obstacle was COVID which required her to re-choreograph two-thirds of the ballet last year because the younger children were unable to dance and older youngsters had to fill those roles.

Making memories

The first dancer Russo hired when she became artistic director for Dayton Ballet was Katy Gilliam, who grew up in Durango, Colorado.

She first saw “Nutcracker” when the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet came to her hometown. “I can still remember parts of that production and throughout Christmastime I would often put on my own solo version of ‘The Nutcracker’ in my living room,” she recalls, adding the company would use local children in the production. " In ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’ they had little bumblebees come out and run a 16 count circle around a flower and then run off. This is my first nutcracker memory, I was probably seven.”

Her first season with Dayton Ballet was the last year for Dermot Burke’s Nutcracker. “That year I was a party mom, party doll, snowflake, flower, Arabian and Spanish,” she says. “During the first year of Karen’s ‘Nutcracker,’ I was cast as Lead Marzipan. Unfortunately I severely sprained my ankle during notes on our last day of studio run throughs and was unable to perform that year!”

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Since that time, she has danced every female role in Karen Burke’s version, with the exception of Arabian and Sugar Plum. Favorite roles include Cook and Dew Drop. “I was so nervous about the acting aspect of Cook but I’ve come to love it dearly!” Gilliam says. “It’s really fun to interact with the kids, too. Dew Drop makes me feel so glamorous and the music for ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ is so beautiful. In this year’s production, Gilliam will portray Nanny and Dew Drop Fairy.

“I love the familiarity,” she says of the famous ballet. " It doesn’t matter what production you see or dance, it’s always familiar. I enjoy getting to revisit roles year after year because each performing experience adds another layer to our ability as dancers. Because the choreography is so ingrained in my body, I feel like I have total freedom to challenge myself and perform each role better than the last time.”

Rising through the ranks

Sixteen-year-old Mollie Juniewicz has been in all nine of “Miss Karen’s” Nutcrackers. She began as a lamb, moved her way up to the leading role of Clara in 2021 and this year is learning the roles of Snow and Flower.

“I remember watching ‘The Nutcracker’ with my mom before I was old enough to audition myself,” says Mollie, a sophomore at Chaminade Julienne High School. “I knew then that I wanted to be on that stage and, the next year, I was, as a lamb. Every year after that, I wanted to be in ‘The Nutcracker’ and work my way up through the roles and challenge myself more and more.”

Clara, she says, was a dream role. Several years before that she portrayed Clara’s troublesome little brother, Fritz. Mollie, who hopes to pursue dance for many years to come, says she enjoys “The Nutcracker” because “it’s part of so many family traditions and holiday celebrations. "

Concludes Karen Burke: “Nutcracker takes a lot of work but also provides some of the most cherished memories a dancer will ever have.

HOW TO GO:

What: “The Nutcracker” presented by the Dayton Ballet accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by artistic director Neil Gittleman

When: Dec. 9-18

Where: Schuster Center, 1 West Second Street, Dayton

Tickets: Priced from $32-$80. Contact: DaytonLive.org. Or visit the box office.

Note: The ballet runs one hour and 45 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission.

Related programming:

  • A sensory-friendly performance, especially designed for those with autism, sensory sensitivities or other social, learning or cognitive disabilities, will be held at 2 p.m. on Dec. 16.
  • Artistic director Karen Burke is a dog-lover and each year during “Nutcracker” hosts “MuttCracker” in conjunction with local pet organizations. This year SICSA will have adoptable dogs at the matinee performance on Saturday, Dec. 10 and Luv4K9′s will have dogs at the matinee on Saturday, Dec. 17.
  • The Dayton Ballet Boutique is open before and after each Nutcracker performance. It’s a great place to support the company and buy dance-related items: stuffed animals, ornaments and, of course, nutcrackers.
  • Decorated Pointe Shoes: Dayton Ballet School Parents Association members decorate and sell the cute–and beautiful– shoes worn by the dancers in the company. It’s a great gift for a young dance enthusiast.
  • The annual Sugar Plum Tea, presented by the Ballet Barre, will be held on Sunday, Dec. 18 from 12:30-2 p.m. at the Dayton Women’s Club, 225 North Ludlow Street, before the matinee performance of “The Nutcracker.” Tickets are $25 and include tea party foods and hot beverages as well as a short dance class and a reading of “The Nutcracker” under the Christmas Tree. Tickets · $25 www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sugar-plum-tea-dayton-ballet-barres-annual-childrens-event-tickets-464337545097 Questions about the event can be directed to daytonballetbarre@gmail.com
  • A Q&A with Dayton Ballet’s Karen Burke and dancers will be held after each performance.

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