For the past three decades, South Whidbey’s version of “The Nutcracker” has enchanted and engrossed viewers in the classic story of Clara’s special journey on Christmas Eve.
This year, the show returns to the South Whidbey High School auditorium stage for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s really emotional for us, because we didn’t think we’d get to be there,” said Charlene Brown, founder of Whidbey Island Dance Theatre, which puts on the annual production.
A virtual performance of the famous ballet took place in 2020, and in 2021 the props, settings and characters had to be pared down for a smaller stage.
But this year, the show returns to its original home and more community members are involved. Elliauna McLean, a Whidbey Island Dance Theatre alum, is the artistic director of the production for the second time. Megan Moore is the assistant artistic director.
As always, there are some changes to the holiday ballet that eagle-eyed viewers might pick up on.
“Let’s just say Clara goes through a lot of growth in this year’s ‘Nutcracker,’” McLean said.
Performances run Dec. 9-18, with a mix of matinee and evening shows available. Tickets can be purchased at widtonline.org or by calling 360-341-2221.
McLean grew up dancing and performed in “The Nutcracker” for a total of 12 years. She played a number of roles, including Clara.
“The list of what I wasn’t would be shorter,” she said with a laugh.
Whidbey Island Dance Theatre, the nonprofit organization that has taken on the responsibility of producing South Whidbey’s “Nutcracker” since its third year, has 20 dancers in its company between the ages of 9 and 18.
“As dancers progress in their training, they get more and more advanced roles each year,” McLean said.
“The Nutcracker” has a total of 70 participants. Community members make up the vast majority of dancers and characters seen on stage. Every September, auditions are held for the general public.
South Whidbey’s “Nutcracker” is leaps and bounds away from its very first iteration, which took place in 1992 at the stage where the Whidbey Children’s Theatre in Langley is currently located. Brown recalls it was an abridged format that closely followed the settings seen in most traditional versions of “The Nutcracker.”
That changed over the years, as Whidbey Island Dance Theatre adopted a more “Northwest Nutcracker” with a mystical forest setting rather than the “Land of Sweets” seen in Act II. A brief underwater scene with a sea turtle was also added, to the delight of Whidbey audiences.
“We try to do something every year that’s a little twist or new costumes or just something that people come and they go, ‘Oh my gosh. This is a little bit different,’” Brown said.
Brown has owned a dance studio on South Whidbey since 1987. South Whidbey’s “Nutcracker” began when one of her teachers who worked for her business suggested it. At the time, there wasn’t any ballet on South Whidbey.
“The South End of the island is so artistic here that they just embraced it,” Brown said. “That was more than we ever expected.”
When she directed the show, she often made an appearance as “Great-Uncle Neville,” a quirky, wholly invented character marked by white hair and a cane.
A few years ago, she made the decision to hand the reins off to Whidbey Island Dance Theatre alumni, who often return to the island after completing college and want to be involved in the show in some way. She still participates as a volunteer who helps with costumes.
In this year’s “Nutcracker,” Stella Jung and Tabitha Metts play Clara, Robbi Moore plays the Nutcracker Prince, Melyssa Smith plays the Nutcracker, Tay Pitts plays the Rat Queen, Lars Larson plays Drosselmeyer, Dade Glaser plays the Forest King, Taryn Henny plays the Faerie Queen and Yarrow Batiste plays the Rose Faerie.