When he signed up for ‘The Nutcracker,’ Tom Mebert got a bit of a surprise on the first day of rehearsal.
He’d performed in Saratoga City Ballet’s production of the classic story ballet last year, in support of his daughter, Katie, who was also in the production. He had a non-dancing role, one where he could stand in the background of things. So he expected this year to be much the same.
But artistic director Beth Fecteau’s version of “The Nutcracker” doesn’t work like that.
“I didn’t realize I was going to have to really learn how to dance,” Tom said.
During the first few rehearsals in October, Fecteau dove right into teaching the choreography, using dance lingo that went right over Tom’s head, along with those of a few other dads in the production. But over the last several months, he’s picked up the steps along with the lingo.
“It’s challenging, but it’s a lot of fun,” Tom said.
The Saratoga City Ballet production, which makes its way to The Egg this weekend, is not a typical “Nutcracker.”
Not to say that the classic elements of the ballet aren’t there — the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara, Fritz, the rat king and others will all be on stage. But there’s also quite a few unexpected elements to wow and enchant.
“In the first act, I have magic tricks,” Fecteau said. Magician Alan Edstrom helped to bring the magic to the stage. Fecteau also invited local visual artists to create original works of art that will be projected onto the stage as the backdrop for the production. Tchaikovsky’s familiar score gets a twist with the new age-inspired music that Fecteau uses.
This year’s show is the 25th-anniversary production for Saratoga City Ballet. It’s the first in over a decade that Fecteau will be the artistic director, though she’s no stranger to the show.
She first directed and choreographed a version of “The Nutcracker” in 1996 at the Cohoes Music Hall. Her students at Youth Ballet and Dance Eclectic of Clifton Park, her former studio, made up most of the dancers.
“We were one of the first organizations to start utilizing that space again,” Fecteau said, “Then we just outgrew it and so that’s why we went to The Egg.”
For the next decade, she directed and choreographed “The Nutcracker,” each year. It was a rewarding experience as she got to watch her students grow each year and as she developed as a choreographer.
“It’s nice to see the growth, when I look at old videotapes from 1996, not only artistically but me as a choreographer,” Fecteau said.
Throughout the years, she’s adapted her choreography to the cast and the dancers she had, sometimes adding in more technically challenging moves or simplifying different scenes to accommodate for newer dancers.
“[‘The Nutcracker’] provides a rite of passage for dancers. It gives them something to look forward to [and] aspire to with their dance training each year,” Fecteau said.
Fecteau directed and choreographed “The Nutcracker” with Youth Ballet and Dance Eclectic of Clifton Park for a decade. Due to a few professional changes — Fecteau was hired as an administrator at the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame and shut down her studio — she took a break from directing it for over a decade. But since then, she’s left the position at the Museum and founded a modern dance company, known as Nacre.
And this year, she was more than ready to come back to the much-missed tradition of directing and choreographing “The Nutcracker.” In this production, she brings together dancers from Nacre with dancers from the Saratoga City Ballet and a few professional dancers from New York City. There are about 50 dancers in total, ranging from young children to adults, including several fathers and their daughters, like Tom and Katie Mebert.
Tom plays two roles in the production, Mr. Stahlbaum and a spin-off of the Mother Ginger character.
“So I will be dancing around in front of hundreds of my closest friends and family in full drag,” Tom said.
Luckily, he’s got his daughter to help him prepare. Over the last few months, Katie has been critiquing his technique and working with him outside of rehearsal time. She’s been dancing since she was a kid, and as a junior at Saratoga Springs High School, she’d had years of experience. But helping her dad learn to dance has been fun for her and for her father.
It’s well worth the studio time and hours of practice that goes into it, said Tom. “What dad gets to spend this amount of quality time with their teenage daughter? It’s just awesome,” Tom said.
“It’s interesting because he doesn’t really have a dance background,” Katie said.
As Sugar Plum Fairy, she’s got her own challenging role to work on.
“Each year, as you progress through the roles, it gets harder and harder,” Katie said. This role is the toughest she’s been in yet, but it also comes with a bit of freedom.
“When you’re Sugar Plum you have more [leeway] to explore and make it your own,” Katie said.
That’s where Fecteau has come in and helped to bring out Katie’s personality in the dance.
“Dance is about nonverbal communication . . . It’s not just about the steps. That’s my forte as an instructor,” Fecteau said, “I care more about your personality on stage and your communication with each other and the audience sometimes than the dancing itself. Don’t get me wrong, the dancing is important but [communication] is a skill in itself.”
Fecteau works with Katie one on one and said that while it’s unusual to have such a young dancer in the role, the Katie is blossoming. “She does a great job, she’s challenged and she looks great.”
Working with the talented dancers from Saratoga City Ballet and Nacre,
Fecteau said that the dancing and choreography was the easy part. It was the set design and costumes that were tricky. But even with that challenge, she’s found a way to bring the community together.
She put out a call for visual artists and asked them to create works that could be projected on the backdrop for various scenes in the production.
“I went from traditional backdrops to hiring visual artists,” Fecteau said.
Artists from around the area whose works are featured in the production include Jeanna Leonardo, Julie Borden, Eden Clay, Abigail Taylor and Zephaniah Conway.
She’s also been able to bring together different generations of dancers through a new tradition.
“In Party Scene, there’s this doll dance. Back in 1996, we had a mom that made these beautiful dolls,” Fecteau said. They’re handmade and survived over a decade on stage.
When she took a break from choreographing “The Nutcracker,” she gave the dolls to some of her students. But she wanted to bring them back for this year’s show so she reached out to her former students, many of whom are now in their 30s and 40s. Most still had the dolls and gladly lent them back with a letter to the young dancers who would be dancing with the dolls in this year’s show.
“It’s fun to see some of the letters that they’re writing about their time on stage,” Fecteau said. She’s decided to start a tradition based around the dolls.
Each year, former dancers will loan the dolls to the young dancers coming up and send them a letter. In return, the young dancers will write them back, creating a chain of experiences and generations.
“The Nutcracker” is one ballet that young dancers often look forward to, not only because it’s a tradition, but because they can move into different roles each year, following in the footsteps in the dancers before them. Thus, the new tradition seems fitting.
For dancers like Katie, it’s just exciting to be a part of the production, especially under Fecteau’s direction.
“I’m really excited to see this whole production come together because we’ve never done this version of ‘The Nutcracker,’” Katie said.
Saratoga City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sat.
WHERE: The Egg
TICKETS: $28 for adults, $20 for students and seniors
MORE INFO: saratogacityballet.com