Kyle Jensen / The Record Coupeville resident Skyy Lippo, who plays the Rat Queen, rehearses her routine during the battle scene.

Roles, sets altered for this season’s ‘The Nutcracker’

When the elegant ballet performers, extravagant costumes and little dancers from “The Nutcracker” are only weeks from taking center stage, it’s a sign the holiday season is just around the corner.

But what would Whidbey’s rendition of the traditional play be without the typical Whidbey twist? Fortunately for those itching to bring their families to the ballet, Whidbey Island Dance Theatre is once again bringing fresh ideas to the plate.

“Our performance is different from the traditional story of ‘The Nutcracker; it’s very Whidbey,” Artistic Director Charlene Brown said. “There is an enchanted forest, a mermaid scene which is traditionally Arabian and we played around with some lead roles.”

The dance theater’s performance of “The Nutcracker” is returning for the 24th year beginning Friday, Dec. 9. The season runs from the 9th to Sunday, Dec. 18, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings and 2 p.m. matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays. General tickets cost $20 if purchased ahead of time, while tickets for seniors, military and children cost $17. Tickets are also $17 for groups of 8 or more. The price is $22 at the door.

Tickets for opening night cost $17.

According to Assistant Artistic Director Brittany Falso, Whidbey Island Dance Theatre “wouldn’t do our community justice” if it didn’t add its own twist to the renown ballet. Some of the traditional sets were ditched for backdrops that are “very Whidbey,” including an enchanted forest complete with a faerie queen and forest king, as well as island twists on original characters such as Madame Ginger and her children. Mermaids can be seen swinging from ropes of seaweed in an underwater world rather than the Arabian scene typically seen in the ballet.

“We are not the traditional nutcracker,” Falso said. “Our story is the same with Clara and the Nutcracker, but we try to do something a little bit different, especially with our cast.”

Whidbey Island Dance Theatre opted to go with a female lead as the Rat Queen in place of the traditional Rat King role, one of the many shake ups to the original ballet. During the fight scene between the Nutcracker and Rat Queen, the choreography will be much different. Brown said she wanted to tinker with a different gender dynamic in the battle.

Although the roles of Rat Queen and Clara require highly skilled dancers, one would be wrong in assuming the company hires dancers from outside its core group of girls.

“Our principal roles are going to our company girls,” Brown said. “The guests that we do bring on for other roles always end up raving about how impressed they are with the local dancers. I think a lot of people expect to see a recital, but we’ve proven to put on a great production.”

Leading the ballet this year are two of Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s most prominent young company girls: 17-year-old South Whidbey High School student Alexa Varga and 16-year-old Coupeville native Skyy Lippo. This season, Varga will be Clara, the lead role of the ballet, while Lippo will assume duties as the Rat Queen. Both were part of Whidbey Nutcracker performances as bumblebees and other child roles when they were eight or younger, but they have now become two of the show’s stars.

“It’s really cool coming from being a baby mouse to a lead role,” Varga said. “When I was a baby mouse, I looked up to Clara so much. It’s really full circle.”

Raising its own dancers and using them in prominent roles rather than hiring outside dancers is a theme for the theater’s Nutcracker production. Even many of the contracted dancers are alums of Island Dance like Graham Vanderwood, the Nutcracker, and Zane Vanderwood, the Nutcracker prince. Falso returned to the company last year as the assistant artistic director after starting her dancing career under Brown at Island Dance as a 3-year-old.

As company dancers age and leave the island to pursue college educations and dancing careers, one person remains a constant and continues to bring former pupils back to the company as instructors and choreographers: Brown, artistic director.

Brown has overseen the Nutcracker performance for all 24 seasons. These days, she says she is taking more of a backseat and working with the youngest dancers while handing over larger roles to her assistants. But for Brown, seeing her former pupils want to come back to the company on a professional level is an honor.

“In this studio, alumni have come back through those doors and said they’ve had such a great time that they want to teach here,” Brown said. “I’m always willing to put the younger people in the spotlight. Seeing the young dancers become professional dancers and choreographers feeds me.”