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As one Savannah 'Nutcracker' says goodbye, another says hello
"The Nutcracker": Children's Ballet Theatre

It’s last call at Club Sweets.

Saturday’s performance of Swingin’ at Club Sweets will be the final one for the young dance students of The Studio. Director Veronica Moretti Niebuhr says her adaptation of The Nutcracker – staged by her students for five consecutive years at the Lucas Theatre – has run its course.

“I’m always looking for more,” she says. “I want more. It’s a great show, and this doesn’t mean I could never do it again. It’s always there. But I just aspire to do something else, and bigger.”

The Rhode Island–born Niebuhr studied with New York’s Steps on Broadway, and danced as part of the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre and other troupes.

She’s been in Savannah since 2001, first taking a teaching job with (the now defunct) Ballet South, then opening The Studio in 2004.

Swingin’ at Club Sweets is a jazz–age translation of the time–honored tale of little Clara and her Christmas dreams. Accompanied by a five–piece jazz combo, the cast turns the stately home of Herr Drosselmeyer into a speakeasy, populated by finger–poppin’ swingers and jazzbos. The music is by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and others of that idiom.

But it’s not what you’d call jazz dance, Niebuhr says. “It’s all ballet. All the dancers are en pointe. It’s contemporary, but it’s certainly classical ballet. But it’s pushing the envelope in terms of what they’re doing. And it’s incredibly demanding, technically.”

The cast of 30 includes dancers ranging in age from 6 to 18, and several of the kids have been a part of Club Sweets since its inception. “They’re not just running across the stage on their tippy–toes,” Niebuhr laughs. “They know it’s an opportunity to do a lot of dancing and carry the show.

“Because once I’ve finished giving them all the choreography, it’s their show. I give it to them. They definitely look forward to it.”

It’s become a popular show, too, and one that’s always well–attended (and not just by the kids’ families – that’s what The Studio’s spring showcase is for).

Still, Niebuhr admits, she’s never actually sold out the Lucas. Since hers is one of two (or three) Nutcracker adaptations performed in Savannah each winter, she wonders if the disparate local companies might someday unite, pooling their best dancers, for a truly killer Nutcracker.

“If the community could come together to do a ‘Savannah’ show, it would be such a fantastic thing, I think,” she says. “And then you could sell out, and do so many nights. It would be fun. But people aren’t willing to go there.”

Ah, but Swingin’ at Club Sweets, according to its choreographer, has gotten better every year as The Studio’s dancers grow and mature. “I constantly evolve the choreography, and that helps make it more fresh,” Niebuhr explains. “Every time we work on it, it’s almost more fun because it’s different.”

Still, “I’m ready to try something else next year, and unless I could have a 20–piece jazz orchestra and a bigger group of people performing, I don’t think I want to do it again.”

New to the Nutcracker sweepstakes for 2009 is Paula Fichtenkort’s Academy of Dance; her performing company, the Children’s Ballet Theatre, brings their interpretation of the original show to the stage of the Trustees Theater Saturday and Sunday.

Fichtenkort, a native of England who founded Connecticut’s Westport Academy of Dance, started the Academy after arriving in Savannah in 2006.

For the last three holiday seasons, she’s had her kids doing The Night Before Christmas.

“I was kind of getting them ready before we jumped into The Nutcracker,” Fichtenkort says. “I did it for many, many years in Connecticut. They’re ready now. I didn’t want to do some rinky–dink thing, or some recital–type show; I wanted it to look good.”

The cast includes, she says, 60 children – starting at age 3. Most of the principals are dancers from the Academy’s junior and senior companies.

Her choreography follows, more or less, the classical Nutcracker format laid out by George Balanchine.
“I haven’t varied from it,” Fichtenkort explains. “I know some people do the southern one, and they do the bayou one down in Louisiana, but this is straight classical.”

As for the sets and props, which are integral to a classical Nutcracker experience, “We’ve had a lot of help. The high school has built us a tree. The sets for the Land of Sweets, we were lucky enough to be given them by Ballet South. And we have a nice man here in town who’s a carpenter – he’s built us loads of stuff, cannons, the soldiers’ guns, everything.

“I’ve been very lucky. It’s an expensive proposition to mount a Nutcracker, especially in this economy.”


The Studio: Swingin’ at Club Sweets

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5

Tickets: $28–$35; $12 for students and military with ID

Contact: (912) 525–5050

Children’s Ballet Theatre: The Nutcracker

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

Tickets: $28

Contact: (912) 525–5050