Acadiana’s Seasonal Showstopper
● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins • Submitted Photos
There’s something magical about donning glamorous evening attire, being ushered into a theatre that’s buzzing with cocktails and conversations and waiting for the lights to dim and the curtains to open. One holiday performance has held Acadiana audiences under such a sugary spell for 14 consecutive years: “The Nutcracker.”
Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” was first performed on Dec. 18, 1892, and 122 years later it remains a holiday tradition. Acadiana’s abundance of local talent and its rich cultural scene have made it a prime destination for the classic ballet performed by the Lafayette Ballet Theatre’s official school, the Dance Conservatory, Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle and almost 200 dancers from local academies. Droves of spellbound spectators continue to be intrigued by mysterious characters like Uncle Drosselmeyer and are still captivated as Clara and Prince Cavelier travel through whimsical lands of decadence. The performers convey the spirit and enchantment of the holiday season to their awestruck audiences.
“I think that everybody sitting in the audience really can be Clara,” Co-artistic Director of the Lafayette Ballet Theatre Shannon Heath relates with wonder. “They can imagine that this is their dream. This is their night and you can just really feel it through the performance. The energy is fantastic; it really is. The dancers are just like any other athlete and they’re competitive, but they pull together to support one another; there’s camaraderie and you can feel that. There are only two shows, so the energy is high level.”
The Work Behind The Whimsy
While watching the performance, audience members are lured into a dream, a dream that comes with hard work. Local dancers enthusiastically endure grueling auditions and 11 weeks of practice before being joined by principal and guest dancers from across the country. Heath explains what happens before the ballerinas take the stage at the Heymann Performing Arts Center.
“It begins in very early September with the auditioning process,” she says. “We audition about 250 students. They’re from age eight all the way up to professional status. We have two complete days at UL, where we audition the students. Approximately 160 are chosen to join our performing cast. There are lots of roles, a feature ever so wonderful, because then there are lots of opportunities.”
Guest artists will fulfill the roles of Clara, Uncle Drosselmeyer, Prince Cavelier, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Dew Drop Fairy and the main character in Arabia, the land of coffee. Aside from the opportunity to work with talented local dancers, another reason attracts the touring ballerinas to Acadiana. Because the guest dancers pirouette through a land of chocolates and bon-bons all day, arousing their interest in food would seem difficult. Yet, if any locale can arouse an interest in food, it’s Acadiana.
Entertainment In Acadiana
“We try to get at least one really good dinner in,” admits Heath, “because the food is what everyone enjoys coming back for. Crawfish is usually their desire; it’s so different and unique to our area. So usually it’s straight for the Cajun food.”
“The Nutcracker” provides to Acadiana more than simply the chance to experience a stunning ballet. It serves as one of the Lafayette Ballet Theatre’s largest outreach programs, giving this unique opportunity to nearly 50 students from the Theatre and Dance Conservatory and 110 from additional local schools. These students get to work and learn from each other as well as from principal ballerinas. No matter what role they are given, the lessons they receive are invaluable.
“I think it develops self-esteem and it teaches them to reach goals,” Heath states proudly. “It also teaches them that you have to build your skill level and go through the ranks. Every child, at an early age, decides she wants to be Clara. Beginning as an angel, the child learns work ethic. Then she goes to soldier, where she learns patience. Next she is a polichinelle. There are different things that she learns from each role. The experience teaches the students to build goals and to work towards them. It also teaches acceptance of ‘This is what I received this year and I have to be motivated and work for this particular goal even though it wasn’t necessarily what I would have chosen.’ Those are life lessons learned from a ballet and it’s simply amazing.”
Children from within the community do not have to participate in the ballet to feel its impact. Lafayette Ballet Theatre partners with Our Lady of Lourdes to host A Night At The Ballet. This program allows roughly 200 children from local clubs and shelters to experience the wonder of the performance and the joy and theatrics of the holiday season.
“The letters that I get from the children who have attended A Night At The Ballet are amazing,” Heath gushes. “I still remember I had a 5-year-old saying, ‘They gave me a program, but I don’t think I’ll need it because I’ll remember it forever.’ You get a letter like that from a 5 or 6-year-old, and it just changes your life.”
A New Twist
Although “The Nutcracker” has the “tale-as-old-as-time” appeal that audiences appreciate, this year a new tale has been added to the story. In an effort to set the stage for the future, Lafayette Ballet Theatre contracted choreographer Julianne Mahoney to create an innovative variation for this year’s performance.
“Julianne has choreographed this new piece called ‘Neapolitan,” Heath reveals excitedly. “It’s not in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” score; it’s in “Swan Lake.” We’re hoping that the audience will be delighted to not only see something new, but to accept it, as well. We debated and contemplated, ‘Should we do this? Can we do this?’ So we decided ‘yes.’ And it’s a great opportunity for Julianne, because she gets to explore her ability in choreography, so it’s showcasing more than just the dancers.”
“The Nutcracker” is a beloved holiday tradition around the world. Acadiana has been fortunate to be a part of its magic for 14 years. Each holiday season brings a new, stirring experience for the dancers and the audience.
“We feel so privileged because Acadiana really has made this a tradition,” says a gracious Heath. “It’s just a great opportunity, and we are so fortunate to see the way Acadiana has embraced it and audiences return every year. That’s another reason why we wanted to do ‘Neapolitan,’ because we do have many of the same families who come every year. We want them to experience something exciting and think something different every time they walk out.”