This month, dance companies all over Oregon are staging the one ballet most everyone knows - even if they’re not particular fans of dance, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. We found a dance school in Redmond that’s reinvented the show.
The students at the Redmond School of Dance don’t make a radical departure from Tchaikovsky’s story and choreography. They just tell the story with cowgirls. And golfers. And rock chucks.
For the uninitiated, rock chucks are the ground squirrels that run rampant all over Central Oregon, driving gardeners, farmers, and others nuts.
The dance school’s founder Mary Silva says she came up with the concept because she didn’t want her students to have to do the traditional Nutcracker. How come? “Well,” Silva explains with a chagrined smile, “They do it in Bend, for one reason! And Redmond should have its own unique version.”
As rehearsal gets underway, Silva is everywhere, fielding questions from dancers, making last minute tweaks to costumes, figuring out how to solve traffic problems that come with a production involving about 50 young dancers
Taking inspiration from Mark Morris’ irreverent send-up, The Hard Nut, Silva’s production stages the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party as a very modern affair.
Clara is now Claire. Just like the traditional Nutcracker, she still has an annoying little brother, Fritz. But she also has a preening older sister, a gaggle of relatives dressed for Central Oregon’s favorite sports, like skiing and fishing, some of whom enjoy one too many eggnogs as the party rolls on.
Fifteen-year-old Grace Bollard is seen in the party scene as a dancing Barbie doll. She also has several other key roles in the second half. “In the party scene,” Bollard says, “the very first act, if you want to a classic Nutcracker, you would not see people in fishing gear! And we have a guy that plays a drunk, he stumbles around stage. You wouldn’t see people holding Starbucks cups, dancing on chairs.”
Of course, Claire has an Uncle Drosselmeyer who arrives straight from his ranch in Eastern Oregon wearing a huge black Stetson, bearing a magical present for Claire.
Silva says it was really fun adapting the classic holiday fairy tale into a form that people in Redmond could immediately recognize. “You can take the Russian music and turn it into cowboys,” she explained. “You can take flutes and turn them into golfers. The Juniper Berry fairy would be the sugarplum fairy. The golfers are flutes. The Chinese are skiers. Everyone has changed into a Central Oregon character.”
Silva’s originally from a small town in California, and moved to Redmond in 1989. She says she knows what it’s like to grow up in a place with just a few cultural options. That’s why, she says, she wanted to start dance classes for kids.
“It can open up opportunities for children to experience dance,” Silva says. “Most of them don’t go on to become professional dancers.”
But a career in dance isn’t necessarily the point. Silva says exposure to ballet can lead kids down other musical and other artistic avenues they might not have otherwise tried.
To the extent Silva is affecting her students, she’s also providing some growth opportunities for their parents, drafted into the High Desert Nutcracker as Stahlbaum party guests.
Ed Onimus and Neil Remilinger are not exactly dancers, per se.
“Classically trained?” Onimus hoots, “No!” Remlinger adds, “Classically trained in what, I’d say?”
These two huge guys, having schlepped their daughters to dance classes for years, consented to come up onstage to be in the production. Onimus, who’s an accountant, found an awful holiday tie to wear for his role as Claire’s father, Mr. Stahlbaum.
“I put in twenty years in the Marine Corps,” Onimus says. “When I was serving I probably never would have imagined me doing this.”
And Remlinger, a computer consultant, is playing Uncle Drosselmeyer. “Having kids,” he says, “you see different avenues of yourself come out. I wish I’d known I enjoyed doing these types of things of performances. I wish I would have known it earlier in life.”
This is the fourth year the school has staged a High Desert Nutcracker. Mary Silva says people often come expecting a traditional performance. She and the students say there’s often a wave of palpable surprise that moves through the audience, once they catch on.
It’s a creative opportunity for students who traditionally are asked to follow strict forms. Avery Carlson is 15. She’s dancing several roles, including a snowflake fairy, a lily, and the villainous Rock Chuck King.
“When we do spring recitals we do ballets that are commonly known and done,” Carlson says. “So we can look to see the other great dancers who’ve done them and how they portrayed certain characters. For this one, since it’s unique to us, we kind of have to figure out, how do I want the audience to see this person.”
Zidane Galant-LaPorte has been dancing for about eleven years. She’s 14. She adds the re-casting of the show in Redmond’s image is helpful to people who may only see one ballet this year. “It gives people an easier way to relate.”
Jan Erickson agrees. She started adult dance lessons at the studio when she was 43 — almost twenty years ago. She’s playing the part of the Stahlbaum’s maid, and spends much of the first half in a state of constant motion around the stage.
“I suppose we’re easy to stereotype,” Erickson said, “looking at us from the outside. So when you present something like this in Central Oregon, we all recognize what’s — we recognize ourselves.”