‘The Nutcracker’ to warm holiday hearts in Dover

In the Ballet Theatre of Dover production of “The Nutcracker,” Phoenix Riehl portrays Clara, who falls in love with a magical doll who turns into a handsome prince. It will be staged Saturday and Sunday at Dover High School. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER – The Christmas classic, “The Nutcracker” is back for the 22nd year with the Ballet Theatre of Dover this weekend at Dover High.

“I think tradition has a lot to do with why the show remains popular year after year,” said Theresa Emmons, artistic director of the ballet.

Mrs. Emmons, who began teaching in Dover more than two decades ago, said the students keep her coming back rehearsal after rehearsal and show after show.

“It’s seeing the dancers grow and improve and reach their potential,” she said. “Seeing the transformation from a little angel in ‘The Nutcracker’ to the lead role of Clara is amazing.”

Mrs. Emmons has seen that transformation in many of the featured dancers in this year’s ‘Nutcracker,” with some having danced since they were only three years old.

“This is my 10th ‘Nutcracker’ and I still look forward to it every year,” said 15-year-old Phoenix Riehl, playing the lead role of Clara.

One of the parents (George Moore) goes for a spin during the party scene of “The Nutcracker” (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“One of the best parts is looking forward to getting a new role each year, and this is my first time in the (lead) role and I’m working my best to have fun and make it my own.”

The tale of “The Nutcracker” begins with Clara receiving an ugly nutcracker doll on Christmas Eve, which comes alive at midnight when she is able to break a spell revealing him as a handsome prince who had been cursed to remain an ugly doll.

Phoenix played the prestigious supporting role of Dew Drop last year, so her progression to Clara was a logical path. But for others, the casting was more of a surprise.

“It’s my first ‘Nutcracker’ so I didn’t know what role Ms. Emmons had in mind for me. But I was open minded and excited for any role because performing is the best part of dancing for me,” said 17-year-old Gracie Jordan, portraying the role of Dew Drop, the lead of the flowers scene, one of many fantastical stops Clara and the Prince make on their magical night together.

“This year, we have a lot of dancers at the top, who are dancing so well and great on stage,” Ms. Emmons said.

This year, the Ballet Theatre has a dual cast, which is very uncommon for the group, to allow more dancers play the featured roles.

Sara Biscardi plays Frau Stahlbaum, Clara’s mother. Ms. Biscardi has danced the role of Clara and the Sugar Plum in the past and this is her first time dancing as a parent. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Gracie’s Dew Drop opposite is 16-year-old Naya Gonzalez, who is dancing the role for a second time.

“I don’t mind doing a role twice because each year and every performance is different,” Naya said. “But this year I’m (also) looking forward to playing the Snow Queen.”

It will be Naya’s first time performing the Snow Queen, where she is dancing with a new partner, one she said has been great to work with.

The featured male dancer in this year’s “Nutcracker” is Andre Texeria, a Brazilian dancer, currently with the New Jersey Ballet and a former winner of the New York International Ballet Competition.

“He’s an amazing dancer and is tall which we needed because Phoenix is 5-9, which can make finding a partner difficult,” Ms. Emmons said.

Due to a tight professional schedule, Mr. Texeria hasn’t been able to attend every rehearsal but Ms. Emmons’ son Brandon has been able to step in when needed.

Kylee Lehnert, portrays a life-sized soldier doll in the children’s party in a scene from “The Nutcracker.” (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“Brandon was really the first local boy dancer,” Ms. Emmons said. “It’s been fun because a lot of the dancers had heard a lot about him but just met and danced with him for the first time this year.”

Now 33, Brandon performed the role of the Nutcracker Prince back in 1996 when he was only 15 years old and repeated the part until he was 20.

Since September, the dancers have been in classes and rehearsal six days a week perfecting their roles, with nightly three-hour rehearsals the week leading to the show with the entire cast.

“Preparing for a show like this requires a lot of work,” Phoenix said. “And with all the hours of rehearsal, you have to take care of yourself.”

During the stretches of long rehearsals, the dancers try to keep in tip-top shape by eating healthy, doing thorough warm ups and cool downs, including ice buckets and Epsom salt to recover as quickly and fully as possible.

Kaitlin Gwanmesia plays the part of a maid in the Ballet Theatre of Dover production. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

But all the dancers see the hard work as worthwhile once show time comes.

“I think it’s a time to prove yourself,” Naya said. “It’s been a year since the last ‘Nutcracker’ and in that time, you’ve gotten stronger, improved your technique and worked really hard and it’s your time to show not only yourself, but everyone else what you’ve accomplished.”

For Gracie, her most sough-after moment is when the curtain goes up.

“Once you are wearing this beautiful costume and your makeup os done, you can become your character when you step on stage, and there’s a certain magic that comes in that moment,” Gracie said.

“It’s really unlike anything else.”

Piper Moore, left, and Macy Friend dance in a scene from “The Nutcracker”. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

And the combination of the story, the music, scenery and more bring to life the classic tale each year.

“You don’t hear Tchaikovsky and think ‘This is something I’ve heard before and don’t need to hear again,’” Ms. Emmons said. “You hear the music and it takes you right into the story.”

“The Nutcracker” will take to the Dover High Stage at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $20 and are available at the door or by calling 734-9717.

Also, Saturday there will be a Nutcracker Tea at the high school from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Children and parents are invited to dress up as any Nutcracker character with petit fours, sweets, pastries, tea and fruit served.

An ornament with a signed photo photo of your favorite Nutcracker character is included. The children will also write letters to the troops overseas and two soldiers will talk about their experience of being away from their friends and family during the holidays.

Tickets for the tea are $18 for adults and $12 for children. Call 734-9717 to purchase them.

Ashton Brown is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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