UNCSA's Production of 'The Nutcracker' Turns 50
From its modest beginnings back in 1966, the school's production of "The Nutcracker" quickly grew to become one of the Triad's best-loved holiday traditions. Today the UNC School of the Arts production includes more than 100 student dancers, nearly 200 handmade costumes, and an entire student orchestra.
Kay Bosworth is the Assistant Facility Manager for the Stevens Center where the performances are held each year. “'The Nutcracker' is kind of like the star on top of the tree,” she says. Bosworth has been involved with UNCSA for twenty-six years. Over that time, she’s heard hundreds of stories about this unique, student-run ballet production and its impact on audience members, like a young Winston-Salem woman who moved away a decade ago.
“She’s coming back for the holidays [this year], and she called and purchased tickets as a surprise because she wants to take her parents," says Bosworth. "They took her all those years, and now she wants to surprise them and take them to 'The Nutcracker.'"
UNCSA also gives a special free performance of "The Nutcracker" for Winston-Salem Forsyth County School System third-graders who attend schools with the highest number of free lunch recipients. Bosworth says they’re bussed into the Stevens Center and the impact on the children is immediate.
“It is just absolutely, you know—it’s a child getting to experience something so beautiful,” she says. “It’s wonderful. It’s amazing! And as they’re leaving, it’s like somebody sprinkled fairy dust. It is such a magical experience. When they’re leaving the Stevens Center, [they say] ‘thank you so much! This was wonderful.' It’s just part of the holiday spirit.”
There are ten public performances of "The Nutcracker" each year. Rehearsals begin in September, and they are a major fundraiser for UNCSA. Ticket sales go toward scholarships for design and production students, musicians, costume designers, and, of course, dancers.
“I always thought ‘I want to be a professional dancer, but I don’t know if I can. Am I good enough?'" LeCrone says. "So I think when I got that role—especially as a sophomore—I was like, I had this confidence, not over confidence, that kind of made me feel like what I wanted to do was possible.”New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan LeCrone is a UNCSA alumna, born in Winston-Salem, who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy sixteen years ago as a sophomore. It’s one of the most challenging roles in the ballet, and one typically given to only juniors and seniors at the school.
LeCrone credits her experience at UNCSA as having prepared her for the grueling performance schedule she navigates today as a professional dance soloist in New York. She describes the Nutcracker season there, which spans from Thanksgiving to New Year’s with sometimes two performances a day, as a marathon—not much different from her years at School of the Arts.
“My day was ballet and an hour of school... ballet, ballet, ballet, a couple of hours of school, ballet, dinner, and more ballet at night,” she says. “And ballet is so physical that it was good to have that preparation when I was young.”
And sixteen years later, LeCrone returns to the Stevens Center this week to reprise her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Dean of the School of Dance Susan Jaffe says renowned visiting guest artists like LeCrone thrill audiences at the Stevens Center, and they also provide UNCSA student performers with a rare glimpse into the professional dance world.
"It’s great for our students to be able to watch them,” Jaffe says. “To see how they behave backstage and see how they work, how real professionals conduct themselves on stage and off.”
Jaffe’s own remarkable professional career spanned two decades with American Ballet Theatre, where she experienced hundreds of Nutcracker performances as ABT’s principal soloist. She says today it’s her focus on the stars of tomorrow that keeps this UNCSA production fresh.
“Every year, people are doing the same roles but have matured for a whole year, have improved, and so you’re working at a different level than you did the year before," says Jaffe. "And also, as students graduate out, new people are taking over the major roles, so that’s really exciting, and interesting to help shape and form somebody as they’re doing the Cavalier or the Snow Queen. So, every year it feels new.”
The 50th anniversary UNCSA Nutcracker Ballet performances continue through Sunday. Thursday the 16th is the last chance to see alumna and American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Megan LeCrone reprise her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.