By MOLLY WASH
Out of the wings and onto center stage, Ballet Northwest will present its 35th-annual production of The Nutcracker at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts from December 13 to 22. Illustrating the time-honored holiday story will be choreography by Ballet Northwest’s co-artistic directors, Josie and Ken Johnson, who devised a show that will be challenging for the production’s cast of over 200 dancers, but visually stunning for the audience.
According to the Johnsons, Ballet Northwest’s production of The Nutcracker has been a tradition for numerous area families throughout its three-decade history. Because of that legacy, the Johnsons take proactive steps to maintain a sense of holiday whimsy while presenting fresh material in each production.
Dancers in this year’s rendition comprise local performers and guest artists from out of state. They fall into a vast age range, with the youngest dancer 8 years old and the oldest an octogenarian, said Ken Johnson. It’ll include such familiar faces as Bud Johansen, former artistic director of Ballet Northwest, who assumes the role of Grandfather.
Elina Brein and Nina Ivanenko, Ballet Northwest company dancers, alternate in the lead role: the Sugar Plum Fairy. Professional guest dancers Lucas Horn and Sanford Placide will share the role of the Cavalier. Placide, from New York City, has danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, while Horns dances for Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah.
From September auditions on, preparations for the show have been intense, with regular rehearsals on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Despite the time commitment and sacrifices made by the dancers throughout the rehearsal process, Josie Johnson said the bonding between dancers and the experience of performing onstage is sentimental for many current and former dancers. “It’s a lot of hard work for all these kids,” she said, “but at the same time, they’re forming these friendships and memories. Now that we’re entering our 50th season, hearing from alumni that are older now, they still can carry these memories with them and their fond experiences from their time at Ballet Northwest.”
These memories are especially evident for Ken Johnson, whose dancing career began at Ballet Northwest when he was 8 years old. “My very first experience with the ballet,” he said, “was being in The Nutcracker at The Washington Center. I was a party boy in the party scene and had a great time.”
As a husband-and-wife team, the Johnsons have extensive histories as professional choreographers and dancers. Through their combined experience, they’ve developed similar values that inform how they operate Ballet Northwest. “It’s a great culmination of being just a very positive, nurturing, open environment, and there’s a great history of that here in Olympia,” said Ken Johnson. “There are generations of dancers and families who’ve experienced being part of The Nutcracker, so that’s exciting that it’s such a positive thing in these dancers’ and families’ lives. But at the same time, it’s also a very professional production.”
A hallmark for Ballet Northwest is creating a professional-quality performance that doesn’t require travel outside of Olympia. As part of maintaining that production value, Ballet Northwest replaced its Nutcracker sets in recent years. The new set pieces were designed by local artist Jill Carter, who created backdrops for multiple theaters including Olympia Family Theater and Harlequin Productions. “She created our sets for all three scenes,” said Ken Johnson, “and they’re really beautiful, world-class, nicer than many professional companies — so it really creates an impressive setting for the dancers and the choreography.”
The Johnsons’ choreographic inspiration for The Nutcracker is drawn from their experiences performing and watching productions throughout the years. Josie Johnson said preparation for each year’s production involves contemplating how choreography can reflect the story line even as it challenges dancers. Elements of the show are revamped from year to year to create a fresh experience for returning audience members.
Ballet Northwest is the oldest dance company in the state of Washington, so the Johnsons consider it important to continue the legacy of a positive, nurturing dance environment that maintains a professional level of production quality. A part of that legacy is The Nutcracker, an intergenerational tradition. The Johnsons aim to capture a sense of holiday magic for audience members of all ages.
“We know a lot of times this is people’s first introduction to ballet, sometimes just live theater in general,” said Ken Johnson. “So we want to make it as interesting and fun and action-packed as possible. We’re really utilizing all the music and the overtures to create as much fun and interesting dancing as possible.”
Ballet Northwest’s The Nutcracker
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 13 and 14, 20 and 21;
2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22