Columbia City Ballet: The Nutcracker
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30
Tickets: $15-$38 via etix.com
Savannah Ballet Theater: The Nutcracker in Savannah
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30
Tickets: $18-$38 via savannahboxoffice.com
If there exists a particularly dedicated group of Nutcracker fans out there, do you suppose they would call themselves Crackernuts? Or Crackerheads?
These rabid followers of the classic Christmas ballet would be in sugar plum heaven in Savannah, where there are two productions of The Nutcracker — one professional, one not — on the same day, in different theaters, every year. It's a holiday tradition, as predictable as the ingredients in a Paula Deen pound cake.
In fact, the two productions are timed in such a way that an industrious Crackernut — or Crackerhead, if you like — could catch them both without having to race at all through pesky post-Thanksgiving traffic.
The Columbia City Ballet has had The Nutcracker in its repertoire since 1978. Like most professional companies, Columbia City makes money from touring this extremely popular show — it travels to six southern cities every year, including (for more than a decade) Savannah.
Artistic director William Styron says that, for his ensemble, The Nutcracker never gets old. "Not only are we trying to be as good as we were last year, we've got to try to be better than we were last year," he told us. "It keeps evolving every year, so you try to top yourself.
"I change The Nutcracker a little bit every year, so it keeps it fresh for me. To be honest, I get to see how some of the dancers are building and growing, and how I can kind of stretch and mold them.
"Dancers get their big break at Nutcracker time; it's a big time to be able to prove themselves. I do a lot of alternating between the cities, so dancers get to surprise me and try different dances that maybe they wouldn't be considered for at other times."
The Columbia City Nutcracker has a cast of 160, including principals from the company and local dancers age 5-15, recruited from each city on the tour.
The core characters — Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Nutcracker, the Mouse King et al —never change. It wouldn't be The Nutcracker without them, or the Christmas-dream plotline, or Tchaikovsky's stirring score.
However, Styron said, there is room for movement, within the movement.
"The truth is that it's one of the three most famous classics that Tchaikovsky created, with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty," he explained. "Now, those absolutely have very little leeway. You can't change anything.
"But The Nutcracker, because it's done every year, uses as the standard the original Ballets Russe choreography. In Act One, you have a lot of freedom.
"You have freedom in the Russian dances, but when you get to the Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Sugar Plum Cavalier, you do not so much. You stick to the classic Ballets Russe; that's the standard. And you can't change the Sugar Plum Fairy solo at all."
Company principal Regina Willoughby reprises her 2012 performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. "I think the Sugar Plum Fairy is good because it's a commanding role," Willoughby told Connect in 2012. "In essence, she's in charge of the Land of the Sweets. I have a very strong personality type, so that comes naturally to me.
"But the sweet, delicate feel that the Sugar Plum Fairy has is a challenge for me. And over the years, it's become more and more comfortable. Now, I look forward to it."
Dancing the Sugar Plum Cavalier will be principal Journy Wilkes-Davis, who also had the role in 2012.
The Savannah Ballet Theatre's original adaptation, The Nutcracker in Savannah, evolves as well. In fact, artistic director Sue Braddy makes a point of changing key aspects of her show, performed by young dance students and guest professionals, every time.
What doesn't change is the central concept, that it's 1945 in downtown Savannah, and every character, major and minor, has some connection to one of our city's post-war landmarks.
Two changes for 2013: The Savannah Philharmonic, which has provided a live orchestra score for the past two seasons, is not involved this time around (the music is recorded); and Braddy has augmented the physical set with projected animations.