SITKA — If Alaska is one big small town, then this year’s Sitka Nutcracker is a love letter to the community that inspired it.
Crabs en pointe, red toed shoes flicking. Father Herring, looking every bit like the saltiest of fishermen, fighting to catch an evasive school of herring, who leap in an arch, silver scales flashing. A fireweed fairy, an evil mosquito queen. A pink ombré underwater jellyfish dance, with LED-lit tutus shining in the darkened theatre.
Tap dancing slime line dancers, passing a salmon. Overdressed tourists nearly hit by a tour bus as they pose for selfies mid-street. Snow for days.
The original, one-of-a-kind, Alaskan-themed Nutcracker took the stage last weekend, kicking off the holiday season in a way that felt very familiar.
Malin Marius, 16, performed as a can-can dancer and a tree. Even though she’s only lived in Alaska for a few years, Malin can’t contain her excitement for the show and enthusiastically invited her family from the Lower 48 to fly in for the performances.
“I told all my family to come to this one,” she said. “You’ll never see a Nutcracker this cool, this unique.”
Many of the performers rave about the theme. With inside jokes and subtle details, the performance incorporates many details of Alaskan life, woven organically into the traditional storyline. An eagle here, Princess Maksoutoff there. The audience feels pulled to the story in an intimate way.
“There’s a connection with the audience that’s greatly enhanced,” veteran performer Martha Pearson said. “We’re all in the joke together.”
That special Alaska connection seems to be a natural extension of the small town hustle required to pull off a show of such tremendous detail. Teamwork. Camaraderie. Hundreds of volunteer hours later, Sitka hosts a full length, professional Nutcracker production.
Carole Knuth is one of the many reasons the show comes together year after year. When she saw an ad in the paper for the first Sitka Nutcracker two decades ago, despite zero dance training, she jumped at the opportunity to participate. Now her grown daughter is a mother in the party scene, wearing the same dress Carole sewed for herself 20 years ago.
“I’ve had eight husbands,” she said with a laugh of her past roles on stage. She still makes an appearance in the show, but as the Head Costumer, she currently focuses on the hundreds of costumes and pieces the production demands. Repurposing, re-fitting and creating complex costuming takes months of planning and execution. Hands busy shortening a wayward elastic on one of the can-can girl’s bodices, she spoke with joy and awe for the Sitka Studio of Dance’s every-other-year Nutcracker tradition.
“It’s a classical story and community event that brings the arts to town,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for kids to be on a world class stage.”
Kincaid Parsons, a senior at Sitka High School, is this year’s Nutcracker.
“My first Nutcracker, I was the kid who broke the nutcracker. Now I am the Nutcracker. It’s come full circle,” he said.
In his fifth Nutcracker, a highlight might be his solo. But Kincaid said, “The best part is getting to interact and collaborate with so many people from town. Fishermen tie our sets down. Artists help design our backdrops.”
Lauren Allen, the volunteer coordinator, best quantified the teamwork required to pull off a show of this caliber. There are 81 dancers (with two to four full costumes of two to five pieces each) whose families donate at least five hours of work. There are 50 or so people to regularly coordinate: set makers, costume repairers, dressing room cleaners, bakers, prop transporters and fundraisers. Allen has been working on this show since the summer, with well over 200 hours donated. In the last weeks before opening night, coordinating volunteers is a full time job with up to 10 hour days.
“I grew up in Sitka,” she said. “I do it because it’s giving back to this whole tight-knit community. I know these kids. They work hard and deserve this. I love doing it for all the kids.”
No one donates more to this show though than Sitka Studio of Dance founder, owner and Nutcracker Director Melinda McAdams. Despite her full time job teaching and running the only ballet school in town, she produces the Nutcracker as a volunteer because it challenges her dancers and brings the community together in a unique way.
“Nutcracker is different,” she said. “For lots of families it’s a holiday tradition so we get to be a part of people’s lives in a way that other performances don’t allow.” For her dancers, “It’s a chance to transport yourself to another place and although you can do that with all dancing, when you are portraying a particular character or vision, it is really magical.”
As she stops a dress rehearsal to shift one dancer’s entrance, alter another’s headpiece and — in the last week — add a live choir on stage to enhance the snow scene, Melinda is clearly detail-oriented and committed to her vision. Every last detail is considered and new ideas are attempted, all in the effort to make this show the best yet. Excellence is her mantra.
“Although I think every Nutcracker is good, we learn every time and so every time we get better. The dancers are incredibly talented so the dancing looks good. The dancers are doing things now that the dancers in 1998 couldn’t do,” she said. “The backstage gets better every time too. And backdrops improve, costumes get re-fitted, it all gets better every year. We all keep learning. We all keep sharing. So hopefully the audience keeps coming!”
Producing this show is a year-long venture. Because for Melinda, it is too boring and predictable to recreate the same show each time. And she doesn’t want her dancers to settle for less.
“For me personally, I enjoy the chance to give my dancers choreography that is challenging and tells a story. Because I am a teacher, I also enjoy pushing them a little bit out of their comfort zone. I cast very carefully and try to give everyone something that will make them happy as well as something I think they will be good at and something that can help them find a new part of themselves,” she said.
She begins choosing new musical arrangements and reimagining the plot a year in advance. Auditions are in May. Performers from 7-year-old second graders to grandparents in their late 60s take a number and audition. Like a magician, Melinda places them all in one to four dances each, then tackles coordinating rehearsals for 81 performers.
“Melinda is a miracle worker,” said Martha, a mother in the party scene and four Nutcracker veteran. “She gives roles to dancers according to their ability. Everyone is in the right place.”
Like most volunteers involved with the show, Martha has a busy job and a myriad of other responsibilities. Yet, the community makes time for this tradition because “it provides a performing outlet that is really satisfying,” she said. Martha enjoys dancing with her daughter, who watched her mom perform twice before she was old enough to audition. Lots of the parents volunteering backstage feel the buzz of excitement in their kids and recall bringing them to watch in the audience when they were little.
“The kids aspire to be in it,” said parent Allison Hackett, who cheerfully mans the costume shop for any last minute repairs during the show. “It’s attainable.”
Grace Gjerstsen, a high school freshman and this year’s female lead Marie, said “I’m dancing because of Marie.” Grace vividly remembers the young lady who danced her current part years ago and how as one of the youngest performers, Grace was nervous to even approach her and say hello. “I always looked up to Marie,” she said.
Emma Heuer, 9, and Isabel Johnson, 10, are some of those junior performers this year, making their Nutcracker debut as herring and jellyfish. They could hardly contain their excitement backstage with their friends, bouncing around, a whir of black leotards and pink tights.
“I’m excited and scared,” Emma said before the show. I’m hungry. I’m going to call my dad. Do you want to see my costume? Don’t touch the tutu or we’ll get in trouble!”
“It’s so awesome,” said Isabel.
“I think when you have to wait for something it becomes very special to you,” Melinda said. “When you finally get your first part, there is a lot of excitement. I love hearing the kids list off all the parts they have had.” She also enjoys watching her students grow.
“I remember one girl who had trouble acting onstage,” she said. “I worked hard to get her to be big and emotional. We worked really hard actually. This year she has the sassiest part. I love seeing that growth over time.”
Melinda’s own children are in the show. She recalls how her son Kincaid used to look up to the older boys. Now, he is dancing the male lead. Her daughter is also in the show and dancing a lot; she too grew up revering the older dancers and learning their parts.
“I feel very fortunate that my family also likes to dance and we can do this together,” Melinda said.
As for Nutcracker 2019, the wheels of Melinda’s mind are already turning.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but when things start going well, my brain turns to the next Nutcracker,” she said. “I am already thinking about it and making plans. There is an element pushing for the Star Wars Nutcracker. I’m thinking about that.”
Waltzing wookiees? Yes, please. If anyone can do that, it’s Melinda and the enthusiastic team of Sitkans who love their Nutcracker tradition.
• H.W. Murphy is a writer and veteran who loves to explore, currently based in Sitka.