What hasn’t already been said about the world’s most famous ballet? It’s everywhere during the holiday season — but what keeps this Christmas story at the forefront of our minds and hearts?
For Leslie Belloso, it’s the accessibility. Whether you’re a dancer or an everyday person, “‘The Nutcracker’ often serves to be children’s first foray, not only into ballet, but into classical music. It really is a gateway,” said this dance parent and vice president of Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre.
Live performances will be Dec. 1 to 3 at Wicomico High School: Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets at esbt.org.
The show is all dancing and no dialogue, to best capture the story’s emotion.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” starts at a Christmas party, where young Clara receives a Nutcracker doll from her Uncle Drosselmeyer. Falling asleep under the evergreen tree, she dreams of travelling through the Land of the Snow and arrives in the Land of Sweets, where she is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and a parade of performers.
“Tchaikovsky’s music is just beautiful. The whole thing is beautiful. People come year after year to see it.” When Betty Webster founded the nonprofit in 1991, she insisted that they would produce the entire ballet, not just excerpts. It was a heavy lift, but she had hired a Russian artistic director (first Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith, and now Elena Manakhova) with extensive training.
“For 32 years, people have told us how impressed they are with the production. That’s because, from Day 1, we’ve done a very professional, high-level production of the choreography.”
Hailing from the mountains of West Virginia, Webster trained in Washington, D.C. She taught in Wicomico County for about 50 years, running the Salisbury Dance Academy. “It has been a wonderful life, and I’ve loved every moment. I have a huge ballet family,” said Webster, now 97.
Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre is a pre-professional company, so all the dancers (mostly 18 and under) audition and train regularly at their home studios. What’s special is that the students must be actively taking lessons, but it can be any studio on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Then, special guest professionals always play featured roles, like the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Dancers love performing “The Nutcracker” because they’re joining a legacy that goes back to the ballet’s first performance in 1892. Plus, with so many group numbers, “It’s your typical corps de ballet. You really have to work together,” Belloso said. “It’s an athletic endeavor, but you make it really beautiful, working as a unit, and that fosters collaboration, trust, teamwork…”
Nowadays, dance companies do try to distance themselves from some of the show’s original imperialist and colonial roots, while still celebrating the beauty of the artwork and gorgeous melodies.
The full-length shows provide experience for local dancers, while also inspiring the community with fine dance and exquisite costumes. Plus, local school children also benefit from seeing the community daytime performances.
“I remember the first time I saw ESBT’s ballet … I remember the mice!” Belloso laughed. “I remember how the lights and the music and the costumes and the choreography — I was amazed that this was going on in Salisbury.”
Sure, a person can drive four hours to a professional city show, but “We’re not competition with New York!” Belloso said. “This is a really beautiful production … it’s a beautiful thing to see our students perform for their own community.”
After performing “The Nutcracker” every winter, the ESBT prepares a different piece each spring, like “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” or a flight-ful “Peter Pan.” In 2024, an ESBT alumna will direct a contemporary version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
They are grateful for grant support from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Salisbury-Wicomico Arts Council, the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and private donors. Watch for their growth plans in the coming year.