It’s a tradition Augusta can be proud of: The Colton Ballet Company’s production of “The Nutcracker” is in its 46th year this year, bringing elegance and history to downtown the weekend after Thanksgiving.
The company’s namesake — founder and director Ron Colton — first brought the production to Augusta in 1971, after himself dancing in George Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ in the 1950s. Colton Ballet still performs Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”
The ballet company and its school were named after Colton upon his death last year (Dance Augusta became “Colton Ballet Company,” and the Augusta Ballet School became “Colton Ballet School of Augusta”).
“The Nutcracker” is showing at Imperial Theatre, Colton Ballet’s home theater.
“We enjoy our venue at the Imperial Theatre,” said Bon Ellis, the company’s ballet mistress and business administrator, herself a former ballerina who danced professionally in Augusta for 15 years. “It’s a small theater — even though it is small, it feels very comfortable.”
This year, the production will have a brand new Act II Kingdom of the Sweets set that was designed and constructed by Theatre World Backdrops of Florida, as the old one was about 25 years old and needed replacing. The set is shared with the Greenville Ballet School in Greenville, S.C., which houses the sets when they’re not in use. Ellis said this new set should last at least a couple of decades.
Guest artists in “The Nutcracker” this year include Olivia Powell and John Deming of Pompano Beach, Fla., and Augusta natives Brian Joe, Christopher Wilson and Morgan Bobrow-Williams.
Wilson is a former dancer with the company and is returning to reprise his role as Trepak and the Toy Soldier — he currently dances with Ailey II in New York City. Bobrow-Williams also is a former dancer with the company and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in dance. The cast also includes former dancers who trained under Ron and Zanne Colton (who still is the artistic director).
The production this year will have about 75 people in the show. Right now, Colton Ballet has six company members and five apprentices, but the show also features students from the school and retired dancers. Rehearsal for the show lasts seven weeks.
“We take from (the school’s) Grade 1, which is age 8 on up,” Ellis said. “They’re allowed to be in ‘Nutcracker’ if they’re studying in the school. We don’t do a recital at the end of the year, so this is their big chance to be on the stage. And the kids just adore it. They have a big time; they’re part of a professional production, and they get to see what that’s like. The one requirement is that they make every single rehearsal. And we do those rehearsals only on the weekends, not during their class time. So they take their classes twice a week and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday — it may not be every day, but at least for a couple of hours maybe on Friday or Saturday, they’re rehearsing for seven weeks.”
Ellis said when the children start working with the adult dancers for the production, their eyes get wide with excitement.
“It’s a big deal for them,” Ellis said. “And it really feeds them for the rest of the year. … Their excitement feeds our excitement.”
Two of the older dancers in the show also are excited. Colton Ballet apprentice Katie Bell Fulcher is just 17 — still a senior in high school — but she comes off as someone in her 20s. Part of the way she carries herself might have to do with the maturity and responsibility ballet dancers must have in order to excel. Ballet dancing requires commitment and dedication, with hours of practice each week.
Fulcher just got back into ballet a year ago, after an injury forced her to retire from gymnastics after 10 years. Her only other time doing ballet was when she was 4 years old.
“Most of my injuries have actually been able to go away, because ballet is not as much pounding as gymnastics was, but Miss Bon and Miss Zanne, my instructors, are really good about injuries,” Fulcher said. “They really want you to take care of them and take care of your body and get better as quickly as you can. They’re very vigilant about it and very proactive, so it’s been really helpful and a stark contrast to how my coaches were in gymnastics.”
Last year, Fulcher was thrown into a small role just two weeks before the 2016 “Nutcracker” production after a cast member dropped out, but this year she’s been able to rehearse properly. She will appear in several parts, including a guest at the party in Act I, a snowflake, hot chocolate in Act II, and a candy flower.
“Starting a year ago and having to get to the point where I am now is the hardest thing, because I felt like I was learning this new language,” Fulcher said. “It’s like taking someone and throwing them into a Spanish 3 class, and they’ve never had Spanish 1. So it was kind of like, I had to learn all the basics at the same time that I was trying to learn the newer things, as well. So it was very challenging having to learn how to pick up on things really quickly. But it’s been really good for me to learn how to learn quickly and do something really well.”
Carlee Chastagner, 28, is another, more experienced dancer who will be featured in the production and has been dancing since she was 5 years old. She started with the ballet company in 2003. Her roles in “The Nutcracker” include Frau Silverhaus (Clara’s mother), a snowflake, the Dewdrop Fairy and a candy flower. Chastagner is a teacher with the Colton Ballet School and was asked to be in the production after five company members left.
“I look forward to the tradition of it; every ballet dancer does “Nutcracker” every year, so it’s very traditional,” Chastagner said. “I’ve been almost every adult part there is, and also the social life aspect is great, just seeing like some of the adults that were former dancers here come back (to be in the show).”
Like many dancers, Chastagner and Fulcher couldn’t imagine their lives without dance.
“I really enjoy how it’s not just a physical challenge, but it’s also very emotional — like it’s an art, it’s not just a sport where you’re just trying to be the best at something,” Fulcher said. “It’s about how you can perform it and show your artistry, and you have to show emotion throughout it. And so it’s not just like, ‘Here’s something really amazing that I can do with my body.’ It’s like how you can convey to other people how you’re feeling through your movements and your dancing.”
They’ll both do it for as long as they can — Chastagner said the average retirement age for a ballet dancer is 35. She said she hopes to still be involved in ballet — like continuing to teach — when her body won’t let her professionally dance anymore.
Fulcher also wants to continue dancing, but as she’s about to graduate high school, she hopes to get into the University of Georgia and study in a pre-physician’s assistant program. And she’s considering minoring in dance while she’s in college.
“UGA is my No. 1 school — I applied early, so I already turned in my application,” Fulcher said. “So I work really hard to keep my grades really good. … I want to be a physician’s assistant to a pediatric surgeon. So I’ll probably go to UGA if I get in, which I hope I will, and do pre-PA for four years. And then come back to Augusta and go to AU and do PA school here, because they have a really, really good program.”
Many of the adult dancers in “The Nutcracker” end up rehearsing about 30 hours a week during the seven weeks leading up to the show.
“Especially being a senior this year, balancing school and college applications and senior project and ballet, it’s hard, but I know it’s really good for me, because when I get to college, I’m gonna know how to manage my time,” Fulcher said. “So I would say ballet is in general — not just during ‘Nutcracker,’ but all the time — it’s not just good for you physically and mentally, but it shapes you into an actual person, like balancing your time and how to communicate with someone above you and work with people around you.”
The Colton Ballet Company production is showing at Imperial Theatre at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24, and 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, and Sunday, Nov. 26. Visit coltonballetcompany.org for more information about the company and school. And If you can’t catch one of the Colton Ballet shows, the Columbia County Ballet also will be doing a production of “The Nutcracker” at the Imperial Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, and Friday, Dec. 1. Tickets for any of the shows may be purchased at imperialtheatre.com.