Military ties, artistic surprises in Manassas Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

Heather Brady, special to

WASHINGTON – Living in the shadow of D.C., Northern Virginia is not known for its excellent ballet performances. But that is on the verge of changing.

The Manassas Ballet Theatre, which travels and performs locally, added a fifth performance of “The Nutcracker” this year to its annual run, a sign of growth in the performing arts world.

The ballet at the Hylton Performing Arts Center this past weekend blended a community atmosphere with professional dance skills to create an accessible, relatable performance, preceded by a tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces on opening night.

Colin Wolfe, the son of the ballet company’s executive and artistic directors and a Marine, was killed while he was deployed in Iraq in 2006.

The ties that the dance company has to the military lent a different perspective to the Nutcracker story — one where Clara’s act of healing her Nutcracker, who is broken and losing the battle against the Mouse King, with her love becomes a metaphor for helping military troops when they go home physically and mentally scarred from battle.

The company dancers performed with impressive technique, even during the party scene in Act, with many moving sections of dancers interacting with each other. The party’s well-choreographed chaos featured many dancers on pointe, and Clara appeared young and bubbly, even though she is an adult dancer.

Little acting gestures throughout the ballet made the performance more expressive and the story more believable. Herr Drosselmeyer, who gives Clara her Nutcracker doll, is more like a beloved uncle who likes to amuse and entertain, instead of a darker magician. Given his considerable interaction with the younger dancers onstage, his whimsical, flourishing motions fit the lightness of the production.

Act II was so breathtaking in places that the audience was completely absorbed in the performance, unaware of how quickly the minutes seemed to pass until the show was over.

Julianne Gurgul, who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, was strong, stable and graceful in her movements, unlike many fragile dancers who have performed the role with other companies.

The lifts scattered throughout the performance were also beautiful, with little- to-no shakiness or wobbling, and the company dancers’ movements were clean and precise, absent of the sloppiness that can plague ballet performances.

“We work really hard on cleaning,” says Amy Wolfe, the company’s artistic director. “I try to get everything perfect — every movement, every light cue, every costume.”

Will Smith, who dances the roles of the Mouse King and Mother Gigone, recently won a choreographer’s grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The aspiring choreographer is working on the movements and dance steps for another show with the Manassas Ballet Company.

“They give their dancers the opportunity to choreograph,” Smith said of the company. “They don’t do that anywhere else.”

The Manassas Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is one of the only performances in the D.C. area that features a live orchestra. The dancers and orchestra worked well together, creating the magic and splendor that makes “The Nutcracker” a holiday favorite, year after year.

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