Just when you thought you knew the classic Christmas ballet, “The Nutcracker,” Queen City Ballet is throwing in a few new twists.
This year, dancing among Clara, the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy, there’s a little, mischievous Black Sheep, who just might be stealing more than a little bit of the show.
Tchaikovsky’s magical tale, which has captivated generations of children, sparkles into life Thanksgiving weekend with performances 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25, at the Helena Civic Center.
“It’s the most popular and most understandable ballet,” said artistic director Campbell Midgley. And in cities across the country, a performance of “The Nutcracker” is launching the Christmas season for thousands of families.
“It brings people back to their childhood,” she said. “It’s about the one magical gift you’ve been hoping for — and, in this case, it’s transformed into a prince.”
This is Queen City’s 12th production of the popular ballet and it’s bigger than ever, with over 80 dancers ranging in age from 6 to 58.
“Every single year you’re changing things because of different abilities of the dancers,” said Midgley.
There are more adults on stage this year —17. And she’s beefed up the battle scenes to make them more vibrant, giving the Rat King’s army 12 more mice. “There’s a lot of action to watch.”
Among those taking center stage is the multi award-winning Madison McCarthy, 17, a Helena High School senior, who is dancing her final “Nutcracker” with Queen City Ballet.
This is her 10th Nutcracker, but her love for the ballet is unabated. “It’s a difficult and demanding part,” she said. “It being my last ‘Nutcracker,’ I want to go out and do it well.”
McCarthy just spent five weeks this summer studying on scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City.
One part she’s particularly liking this year, she said, is “watching the Black Sheep — it’s really fun.”
Taking that role, dressed up in little black ears and black pantaloons is Alexandra “Sasha” Shkurigin, 9, a fourth grader from Four Georgians.
“I’ve been dancing since I was 2 years old,” she said. “I like ballet because you feel like you’re flying. It’s graceful and I life feeling graceful.”
Her favorite part of the role is being naughty while all the other sheep are trying to be good, said Shkurigin. “You get into mischief a lot of time.” She also likes the acting. “You get to do a lot of expressions on your face.”
Like her fellow dancers, she loves this ballet and already has her eye on the parts she’d like to dance in future years.
“I want to be Spanish Lead, the Sugar Plum Fairy and maybe, some day, Clara.”
This year’s Clara, Hannah Johnson, 13, an award-winning eighth grader at Clancy Elementary, knows just what Shkurigin is feeling.
“It’s my dream come true,” she said. “I would dance and pretend I was Clara and now I am. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Every little girl dreams of this, and now I can do it.
“I like that you get to be a little girl and you can express yourself and do the acting and make it your own. It’s my first chance to do partner work and I’m very excited for it.”
A special treat is this year’s Snow Queen and Flower Lead, said Midgley, of Rachel Skaar, 16, a Capital High School junior. Winner of numerous dance awards, she won a 2011 full summer workshop scholarship to Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
“She’s a dancer I’ve been grooming,” said Midgley. “There’s nothing to compare her with. With her red hair and smile, she is electrifying.”
“I’ve danced every scene in the ‘Nutcracker,’” said Skaar, from an angel, a party boy, a Spanish dancer, to flowers and snowflakes.
“I’m really excited to be the Snow Queen,” she said. It’s a part she knows well, having been understudy for it previous years. “I’ve always wanted to be the Snow Queen and now I finally get to perfect it.
Her role as Flower Lead is demanding, as well: “Flowers is a real sprint. I have to push myself.”
Pushing yourself is something Jerry McCarthy, 58, who plays Herr Drosselmeyer, knows all about. This is his 11th year in the ballet, he said. He began appearing in the ballet when his daughters took up dancing.
“What a great way to stave off Alzheimer’s, learning ballet in your 50s,” he joked.
His character, which he has studied in depth over the years, is “a little disturbed. He’s very lonely. He’s very troubled. Somehow he has to get Clara to fall in love with the Nutcracker to turn his nephew back into a prince.
“I’m not bored at all,” he added, despite the years of evening and weekend rehearsals. “This is like my second home. They’ve kept me on my toes....
“I’ve been blessed by that kid over there,” he said, nodding toward his Sugar Plum Fairy daughter.
“It’s nice to have great expectations,” he said of Midgley’s direction. And dancing’s kept him in good physical shape, just completing a half marathon this year, improving his time from a Governor’s Cup race he ran years ago.
This year’s guest dancers are Mark Wax from Alberta Ballet, dancing the Cavalier; Lucas Horne, a trainee with Ballet West, dancing the Nutcracker; and Matthew Cunningham, Ballet West Academy, as the Doll Soldier and Russian Dancer.
Also new this year — dancers are accompanied by a recording of the London Philharmonic Orchestra rather than a live performance by the Helena Symphony Orchestra.
Tickets range from $12 to $30 and are available online at
www.helenaciviccenter.com or by calling 447-8481.