Atherton dance performance: 'It's a Wonderful Nutcracker'

Local ballet company merges 'Nutcracker' with 'Wonderful Life' in premiere production

By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

The Lone Ranger, chimney sweeps and a Duke Ellington number. These are just some of the innovations Menlowe Ballet is adding to its new hybrid version of "The Nutcracker," blended with the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life," in a premiere production of "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker."

Professional dancers and Menlo Park Academy of Dance students will appear in eight shows at the Menlo-Atherton High School Performing Arts Center in Atherton, running Dec. 12-20 (peformance details below).

The company's artistic director, Michael Lowe, 61, has performed in the traditional "Nutcracker" more than 10 times and has also directed it. Almost 20 years ago, he got the idea to combine the story with Frank Capra's 1946 movie, and, finally, the time felt right.

Mr. Lowe choreographed the new work, collaborating with his wife and associate artistic director, Sarah-Jane Measor, and his ex-wife and artistic associate, Julie Lowe, to craft the narrative and mount their company's first full-length traditional ballet.

"It's amazing how it's all unfolding," he says, after holding rehearsals for months with 17 corps de ballet members, two professional ballroom dancers, and 94 students who attend and auditioned at the studio his wife owns in Menlo Park.

While the studio, the Menlo Park Academy of Dance, is the company's "official ballet school, there is no legal relationship," says Menlowe Ballet executive director Lisa Shiveley. "We consider it to be the feeder to the corps, and use the facilities free of charge."

A former dancer herself, she has been with the company since it started in 2011 and has an office across the street from the studio.

In this production, Mr. Lowe is also playing the role of the godfather Drosselmeyer, a traveling magician who comes home penniless and empty-handed for a family celebration set in Bedford Falls, New York, in the 1940s.

"He represents the struggle Jimmy Stewart's character (George Bailey) is going through in the movie," Ms. Lowe says. He is saved by a guardian angel who shows him that what is important is not material presents but "the presence in the home of the people that you love."

Portrayed by Terrin McGee-Kelly of Antioch, the guardian angel is among the additions to the traditional "Nutcracker" story.

So is the Duke Ellington swing set in Act I, led by ballroom dancers Chelsea Farah and Eric Koptke doing the Lindy hop. In real life they are engaged and live in Emeryville when they aren't dancing in competitions.

Even the ballerina doll does a Lindy kick when she comes to life, and in another nod to the times, there's a dancing Lone Ranger doll, a popular toy in the 1940s.

Otherwise this production sounds like the original "Nutcracker" with its recorded Tchaikovsky music, but the Mouse King is now a Mouse Queen and the toy soldiers are toy nutcrackers.

Other departures from the "Nutcracker" occur in Act II when the characters travel by steam train to the Kingdom of Foreign Lands and the ballroom couple reappears for the waltz of the flowers in a Viennese garden.

The audience will recognize the snow scene and familiar Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Danish sequences, but will find a fresh divertissement in the English dance.

American ballet companies usually leave that one out, whereas European companies tend to include it. Since Ms. Measor is British, Mr. Lowe wanted to put it back in and choreographed the short "gigue" for a group of chimney sweeps.

In a recent rehearsal, Mr. Lowe demonstrates a fluid movement when he coaches the Nutcracker Prince, Peter Hershey, and Claire, Julie Giordano, on their pas de deux.

"Scoop under and go with the momentum when you're actually lifting," Mr. Lowe says. When she glides back to the ground he reminds them, "Now you're just snugging her."

Mr. Lowe has worked with many of the dancers before, including studio student Leighton Shiveley, 14, of Atherton.

She admires his creativity. "His passion for dance and artistry, and his knowledge, is out of this world," she says.

A dancer since she was 2, Leighton practices six days a week. She says she is "super excited" to be performing in her first "Nutcracker" alongside some of her closest friends. She has three roles: Claire's brother Tommy, a snowflake and a flower.

Her mother (Menlowe Ballet's Executive Director Lisa Shiveley) admits that the "Wonderful Nutcracker" is an expensive show to stage, but if it's successful, it can bankroll the rest of a company's season.

"We've never attempted anything this ambitious before," she says, estimating expenses at upwards of $250,000 for the production. The one-time startup cost covers six 20-foot-by-15-foot painted backdrops, more than 200 props, and "gorgeous" costumes designed by Connie Strayer, who teaches design at Stanford.

"These items should carry us through 10 years of productions," says Ms. Shiveley, who expresses optimism that "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker" will become a time-honored holiday tradition for local families.

"I want the community to embrace this jewel," she says. "It's a wonderful community asset."

PERFORMANCES: Go to menloweballet.org or call (800) 595-4TIX for tickets. Prices range from $28 to $55. All seats are reserved. The venue is the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, 555 Middlefield Road in Atherton. Show times are Saturday, Dec. 12, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 13, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 19, at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 20, at 2 p.m. The show runs two hours with an intermission, and is suggested for ages 5 and up.

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