By Carey Restino
For a quarter of a century, late November and early December have been punctuated by the whir of sewing machines, the swish of paintbrushes and the pitter-patter of dozens of tiny mice feet. It’s Nutcracker time in Homer, and the Mariner Theater is positively pulsing with the energy of nearly 70 ballet-shoed youth, as well as dozens of parents and adult volunteers, all rushing about with glue guns, Sharpies and boxes of jewels and glitter.
What has now grown to be a community-supported production started off simply enough, said Bobby Copeland-McKinney, (formerly Bobby Paulino), the props mistress who has been involved in one degree or another since the Homer Nutcracker’s second year.
“It’s amazing,” Copeland-McKinney said. “Around the eighth year there were hints that we were not going to do another show, but we just kept going and then it was 10 years and all of a sudden it was 20 years. Now it’s kind of a devotion.”
This year’s performances will be Dec. 7 at 3 and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 8 at 3 p.m., Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 14 at 3 p.m.
Ken Castner, the show’s producer, said the production came to a turning point a few years ago when longtime director Jill Berryman, as well as several other key people who had been involved with the production for more than 20 years, decided it was time to turn over the baton to a new crew. Some questioned whether the show could continue without these key people and their vast experience, Castner said. But the show continued, with Jill Berryman’s daughter, Breezy Berryman and Jennifer Norton, who has extensive experience in theater, taking on co-director roles. New folks are filtering in to pick up much of the responsibility of prop and set construction and costume design.
Youth involvement key to local production
It all came down to one thought, Castner said.
“Which one of you is going to tell these little girls they’ll never be Clara,” Castner said.
And therein lies a good bit of the magic of Homer’s particular version of the Nutcracker Ballet — the dancers and performers are included in the creative process.
While Berryman and Norton set a structure for the performance each year — including the annual “surprise”, which could be anything from a dragon to a flying monkey, the ideas of the exuberant and creative multi-age cast are woven in when possible.
“That’s why it’s sustainable,” said Norton, while juggling cast members on and off the stage, approving props and answering endless questions. “It is a flexible show. There’s a lot of room for youth creativity.”
In addition, the dream that Castner mentioned, of moving up in the ranks from soldiers to Russian dancers and other lead ballet roles is not only possible, it is expected. This year’s cast of core dancers is mainly seniors who started out as lambs more than a decade ago.
“They can say, ‘I want to be that role’ and they really can do it,” Norton said. “They can achieve these starring roles.”
Not that any of that success comes easy. Sit in on a rehearsal and you’ll see a lot of hard work happening. Endless corrections follow each rehearsed section.
“That’s better,” Berryman called out to a group of dancers after they ran through a complicated section for the second time. “Now I want to see it 10 times better.”
“I’m seeing a lot of claws.”
“Now don’t move a muscle, not even one of your fingers.”
If Berryman has a lot of advice for dancers, it comes from first-hand experience. She was the first Clara 25 years ago, then a junior high student and one of the few youth in the community with dance experience. Her mother’s adult class played many of the roles now reserved for youth — Russian dancer and doll rolls.
The first performance was just a portion of the Nutcracker Ballet as it is known to Homer today – it wasn’t until the second year that the crew endeavored to go through the entire performance.
In the early years, the performance stayed closer to the original choreography, and this year’s show will feature some of the favorites from those early years, a tip of the hat to those who went before them. The much-loved Spanish, Russian and Chinese dancers will be part of this show, for example.
“We wanted to do something to honor Jill’s choreography,” said Norton.
That’s not to say that this year’s show won’t be innovative, as the ballet continues to soar to new heights. The steampunk trend — a design genre inspired by industrialized elements like gears and ducting — will continue, and some of the dances will feature contemporary music favored by many of its teenage dancers.
Berryman said the experience of being involved in Homer’s Nutcracker for so many years contributes to the effort, but being in a co-director role was a challenge for the first few years. Learning how to direct and motivate people is a skill. This year, however, both Norton and Berryman said the show feels much smoother.
“I feel like we are getting the hang of it,” Norton said. “There’s a calmness this year.”
Backstage effort tremendous
Each year, the directors of Homer’s Nutcracker Ballet sit around in the early fall, thinking of ways to make the performance better and different, what themes to weave into the show that are new and exciting.
If the backstage crew of volunteer seamstresses, set builders and stagehands could hear those conversations, they might surely cringe at the work that would go into executing those themes.
But Norton and Berryman said they are astounded each year when they roll out their ideas for the parent and community volunteers who are in charge of endless applications of glitter and paint that are a large part of the Nutcracker magic.
“At first, I was totally blown away by how receptive they all were to our changes,” Norton said.
That said, some ideas don’t take flight or cause technical challenges one might never imagine take place when watching the finished production on opening night. On Sunday, it was finally determined that an exercise bicycle was not going to fit inside a swan, for example. Ideas of moving props and set designs around have an unexpected cascade effect, causing unanticipated work and modifications. And yet, the crew turns up each year, enthusiastically making all these behind-the-scenes issues iron out.
Backstage, there has been a changing of the guard as well, as longtime stagehands and prop designers phase themselves out while new ones step into roles. But the crews cheerfully cut, sew, build and glue in the name of Nutcracker.
Copeland-McKinney said she and other people come back and get involved in the first place because of the jovial atmosphere.
“The reason these guys are here is we have so much fun,” she said. “The guys are always joking around.”
But Copeland-McKinney and others involved in the production for much of the last quarter-century say the real success of Homer’s Nutcracker goes even deeper than that.
“This is not just a production,” she said. “This is a way to learn who your community is. That’s what this is — a big community.”
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