It's December, and it's time for Oregon Ballet Theatre's "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," and everything seems right in the world.
"In my new position, I hear from the community, and I'm hearing about how long the tradition and memories are surrounding 'The Nutcracker,'" said Peter Franc, OBT's interim artistic director. "The importance of 'The Nutcracker' and tradition are greater than ever."
As with many things, Oregon Ballet Theatre had to cancel last year's productions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it has returned, albeit with vaccination/testing requirements and other COVID-19 restrictions in place — only vaccinated children 12 and above take part, for instance. Shows run Dec. 11-26 at Keller Auditorium.
The company has certainly changed since its last staging of "Nutcracker" in 2019. Franc has taken over as artistic director and more than 10 new dancers have taken the stage for the show.
"There are a lot of new dancers," Franc said. "All of them are doing a lot of featured dancing throughout the production, all of them are bringing an amazing sense of freshness and vibrancy. They all have incredible work ethic, and joy for not just dancing but being part of a wonderful company and well-known production.
"I have never enjoyed watching 'The Nutcracker' as much as I have this year. No 'Nutcracker' last year reminded everybody how special it was. In 'The Nutcracker,' we don't just serve the art form, we're serving tradition and something for families to create memories and have shared experiences together. That's why we look forward to 'Nutcracker' more than other shows."
Experienced dancers return, including Xuan Cheng, Eva Burton and Jessica Lind. Several others have been hired or promoted. Some of the new dancers are being introduced to the lead role of Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.
From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Hannah Davis joined OBT2 in 2015, moved to OBT apprentice in 2016 and became a company artist two years later.
The only company member from the Portland area, Zuzu Metzler, grew up in Camas, Washington, trained at OBT School, joined OBT2 and then became an OBT apprentice in 2018 and company artist last year.
The newest OBT member, hired this year, Charlotte Nash hails from Sammamish, Washington, and performed for Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island the past three seasons.
"I'm having a great season so far. The company is inviting, it's a friendly environment," Nash said. "It's great to have a boss (Franc) who was recently a dancer and with OBT. He's a great leader."
Metzler and Davis live together in Portland. Metzler started at the OBT School at age 8.
"OBT always felt like home to me," she said. "My family being here really enforced that. I've seen now three different directors and three different school directors, and I've seen a lot of change happening and feel involved in different evolutions of the company and styles.
"The vibe is young and youthful and fresh and so full of life. Love to feel it and see everyone enjoy their work."
Davis said all the changes, including some retirements, have helped her appreciate a dancing career.
"I've been here for six years, I've seen people come and go, retire, move on, and it's made me realize how short it is," she said. "That's how I've thought of my own career. It's nice to make new connections to artists and be inspired in different ways. Each artist brings something different. Hopefully it brings out more things in my dancing."
Each of them relishes in dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy role.
"It's a very, very technical role," said Metzler, who pairs with Bailey Shaw as Cavalier. "Balanchine's works tend to be very musical and use technical expressions with upper body and footwork. That's a challenge for everyone."
"It is challenging," Davis said. She dances with Michael Linsmeier as Cavalier. "One thing I've noticed is purely how long you're dancing on stage for. You're always the center of attention, and it's challenging because of the length of time on stage. You have to relax into that and own it."
Said Nash, who pairs with Gustavo Ribeiro as Cavalier: "I have performed Sugar Plum Fairy in my previous company, but with completely different choreography. The variation I did was half the length of this variation. The hardest part is standing still and looking beautiful after you've done the entire variation."
Franc describes Nash as "a very old soul in a very capable body, very clear and intentional with how she approaches her dancing." Davis, he added, "has not met a style of dance she hasn't learned how to master, very versatile." Metzler, the local dancer, has paid her dues as "an up-and-coming artist."
Franc said the veterans and newcomers share in each other's joy of performing during "Nutcracker."
"I've performed almost every single children's role and watched how all of my fellow company dancers and even previous peers progress, and start to learn and take on new roles," Metzler said. "You grow up watching these roles, 'maybe someday I'll get to do that,' and then doing it however many years later."
It's a competitive environment, but one where dancers remain friends, Nash said.
"We're all very close. Especially the first few weeks (of season), all new dancers got together outside of ballet. You meet up and you have somebody support you outside of the company. You feel so comfortable after only a few weeks," she said.
"The one reason I do love this company is I don't feel like there's a huge divide between company artist and principal dancer," Davis said. "They're always willing to give advice and opinion."
She singled out former dancer Thomas Baker as someone "always there for me when I was doubting myself and reminding me of the joy that ballet can be, if you allow yourself to feel that. He would tell us that you have nothing to prove and everything to share. I tell myself that. The audience is not there to give us an exam, they're there to enjoy the moment."
Oregon Ballet Theatre's "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 26 at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St. For tickets, see www.obt.org.
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