Annual holiday presentation at Niagara Falls High School PAC Dec. 8-9
By Joshua Maloni
When community members come out to watch the Greater Niagara Ballet Company’s production of “The Nutcracker” next weekend, they will notice new backdrops, costumes and dance numbers.
They’re also bound to see the GNBC is having a resurgence.
As the ballet company founded by Beverley Feder heads into its 57th year – and 43rd presentation of “The Nutcracker” – the number of participating dancers is growing at a remarkable rate.
GNBC alumna, show performer and director Mary Schnepf said, “We had about a 40% increase from 2021 to 2022, and then another 40% increase from 2022 to 2023.
“We're just trying to work with these dancers. A lot are coming back. We're hoping that we're providing opportunities that they might not be able to find anywhere else. We’re one of the few ballet companies that have open auditions and, for ‘The Nutcracker,’ anyway, we take ages 6 through adult; so, that really does provide opportunities for a wide range of dancers on different levels, dancers with different kinds of training even.”
The GNBC studio is located inside the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center. Schnepf and new co-director Mary Pappagallo are utilizing more of the NACC’s resources – the theater, in particular.
Pappagallo said having that area available to use at rehearsals has made a difference in training the younger dancers.
“We have about two full casts. We have cast A and cast B. Cast A will sit in the audience while cast B is rehearsing on stage,” she said. “They really get the idea of being an audience member, of seeing what those dancers are doing up there, and then kind of switching out.
“It's been really nice to have that stage.”
She explained, “Most of the children in both of our casts have a counterpart, or ‘buddy,’ we like to call them. I make sure to say, ‘Watch your buddy: Make sure you see where they're standing, where their placement is, where their dancing is.’ But also expression, and where they need to be, what their roles are. ‘Oh, that prop that comes on at this point, that's where it's going to be coming in. OK, I know I need to stand there then.’
“It helps them visualize where they need to be, so that when they're up there and performing they can really be all in on their characters.”
GNBC dancers perform on the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center stage. (Photos by Mark Yerger)
“The Nutcracker” will be on stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, inside the Niagara Falls High School Performing Arts Center, 4455 Porter Road.
Schnepf said, “The second act is looking very strong, and we're excited to perform for everybody soon.”
Pappagallo added, “Act one is coming together really nicely. We are excited to be performing in a week. The kids are getting antsy. You can tell they're ready to get on that stage, put on those costumes, get the props. They're looking really, really good and strong, so we're excited to put them on stage.”
“There's over 100 children in the show,” Schnepf said. “Most of them are in the first act.”
“It's been a task,” Pappagallo said. “We had over 100 audition, and then with the added parents and performers on stage, we have over 100 dancers; so, we have to actually split into two casts over the four shows.
“There's a lot of kids on stage, but also a lot of help backstage, as well.”
Pappagallo said, “I think what's really lovely about what I'm working with is mostly the younger generation, so those brand-new younger ones that are coming in. It's been really refreshing to see their excitement. Many of them aren’t familiar with the story of ‘The Nutcracker,’ but are just excited to be on stage and perform.
“For myself, it's been really exciting to be able to tell them that story, and share that, because it's something that I fell in love with when I was their age, as well. And many of them are children – daughters, sons – of performers that you see at the GNBC, so it's been really cool to kind of see full circle that younger generation come in.”
Schnepf noted, “We have brand-new digital backdrops. These are very exciting. There are digital elements that we can work into the show that we just didn't have the technology to do before. So, the audience will really enjoy seeing snowflakes falling, and a tree growing, and some exciting elements that we just couldn't do before with standard backdrops.”
A look at rehearsals inside the Greater Niagara Ballet Company studio. (Photo by Mark Yerger)
Performing the role of Clara at “The Nutcracker” this year: Marlena Macur of Buffalo, left, and Grace Burton of Lewiston. (Photo by Mark Yerger)
Even as the show evolves and the company grows, Schnepf said fans of “The Nutcracker” can rest assured the production will retain its familiar feel.
“For the second act, what I have been trying to do is keep some things very traditional,” she noted. “Some of the choreography hasn't really changed much in 40 years. A lot of it is the original choreography. But every year, we try to do something a little different.
“This year, for ‘Coffee,’ for instance, we've completely overhauled it. It's very different. It used to be a solo. Now it's four acrobats, including two aerialists – it's an aerialist duo called 716 Skybound. It’s brand-new; we're really excited to introduce this to the audience.
“But at the same time, we're keeping a lot of the numbers very traditional.
“I think, ‘The Nutcracker,’ people want to see that tradition. It’s a holiday tradition for people, and they want a familiar show to see. But we're excited to offer little things, snippets here and there, where we can give something brand-new and unexpected to keep the show fresh and exciting for both the audiences and the dancers.”
For the GNBC, teaching, training and performance go beyond the holiday season.
“We're trying to provide more opportunities besides just ‘The Nutcracker’ once a year,” Schnepf said. “We have been having the spring show. … We're trying to keep that regularly going, just to keep the momentum up and keep everybody involved in the company.”
For families interested in enrolling their children in classes, or learning more about future shows, “They should contact us, and follow us on social media,” Schnepf said. “They can also sign up for our newsletter – our newsletter is a fantastic way to stay updated on the company, on our performances, events, classes and auditions. We also make announcements on our Facebook and Instagram pages. They can also reach out to us if they go on our website, and go to ‘contact.’ They can find our information.”
GNBC Board Vice President Diana Guerrucci said, “We are excited about the future of the company. We have increased participation in our shows – in some instances, twofold. We have a great working relationship with our local dance studios, who encourage their dancers to participate and who provide a majority of the dancers you see on stage. We have dancers coming from studios as far away as the Southern Tier.
“The NACC has been a great partner in helping us grow our ballet classes by partnering with us to provide scholarships to dancers in financial need. We have been very visible in the community through our shows, workshops, festivals and parades, which can only help people become aware of our programing.”
A scene from last year’s GNBC presentation of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo by Mark Yerger)
A past image from “The Nutcracker” at Niagara Falls High School. (File photo)