A New 'Nutcracker': Nittany Ballet’s 2019 holiday performance reflects changes at the helm
For nearly 20 years, local audiences have been getting into the holiday spirit with Nittany Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at Eisenhower Auditorium on the Penn State campus. Audience members who have experienced this annual tradition in the past can expect a few changes this year, according to executive artistic director Connor Weigand.
“We believe that it’s good for audiences to see something new every year. It’s always been a goal of mine with any Nutcracker that I’ve ever set to really just surprise an audience,” Weigand says.
To that end, the studio has obtained the rights to the choreography for “Snow” and “Flowers,” two large corps dance numbers that Weigand is excited to share with dancers and audiences alike for the first time this year.
“With ‘Snow’ and ‘Flowers,’ our kids are getting to learn choreography that’s been set on major companies throughout the United States,” he says. “The choreography is hard – really hard. It’s exciting for an audience to watch, but stamina has to be at a really high level, and technique has to be really crisp and clean. Every kid in the room has been working non-stop since September to get to that level.”
Another major change is the addition of two performances at a new location. In addition to the Eisenhower performances on December 14 and 15, The Nutcracker will be performed at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona on December 19 and 20. Weigand is thrilled to give his students a chance to perform in the historic theater, especially because many of the school’s dancers travel from that area to study at Nittany Ballet.
The changes to the annual performance are indicative of what has been a season of change for the ballet, which is part of the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania. The company has undergone several name changes before rebranding as Nittany Ballet in 2017, when Weigand and Kayla McCloskey first joined the company in administrative roles. Weigand and McCloskey are now in their first season as the ballet’s executive artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively, taking over for Rebecca Maciejczyk, who stepped down as artistic director in June.
Weigand’s impressive dance background includes training in New York City, performing for 15 years on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in Europe, and teaching ballet across the world. He moved to Centre County after a dance injury to be close to family and met his wife here.
“We fell in love with the community here, so we are here to stay,” he says.
A Bellwood native and a former student of Weigand’s at Allegheny Ballet Company, McCloskey majored in Musical Theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, has performed all over the world, and has extensive choreography and teaching experience.
Weigand and McCloskey also teach at Nittany Ballet, along with an experienced group of instructors who have also performed, trained, and/or taught around the world. In August, the school brings in internationally known guest teachers, as well.
The high-caliber teaching staff attracts serious dance students from ages 4 to 17. Many students attend major summer dance programs at companies such as School of American Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet. The school has produced dancers who have gone on to train or perform at the next level, including 12-year-old Natasha Nobikov, who is currently attending the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
“Our top dancers are here for 12-18 hours of classes each week, plus another 5-10 hours of rehearsals. It’s essentially a part-time job for these high school kids. It’s a commitment, that’s for sure,” Weigand says.
It’s also a commitment for the dancers’ families.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without parents volunteering their time. They help out backstage, they staff the merchandise table, and our board is primarily made up of parents as well. Our costume designers are parents, and they are amazing. They have been working since the middle of the summer sewing costumes for Nutcracker,” Weigand says. “So the parents put in a lot of time. We’re very thankful.”
While classical ballet is certainly a focus of the studio, the company also offers strong programs in contemporary ballet, modern dance, and musical theater jazz. All students are invited to participate in The Nutcracker. This year’s performance will include 99 dancers, with Margo Novikov, a State High senior, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Maia Barber, a Mount Nittany Middle School 7th-grade student, as Marie. The show will also feature a guest artist, Francis Lawrence, an Australian dancer who has performed with Dance Theater of Harlem and the Broadway tour of An American in Paris.
Tickets to all performances are available via pascp.org.
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.