Zack Grubbs and Courtney Connor Jones in "The Nutcracker" /Courtesy of Peter Mueller
Zack Grubbs and Courtney Connor Jones in "The Nutcracker" /Courtesy of Peter Mueller

If you’re a diehard celebrant of the Christmas season, you know that the holidays are incomplete without two generations-old favorites: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

And when the later returns this year, the holiday story, told through the eyes of a young girl, Clara, as she takes a journey filled with toy soldiers, fairies, sword-fighting mice and a stop at the Land of Sweets, the Cincinnati Ballet will perform the classic.

It will be the company’s debut at the Kennedy Center in Northwest with choreography by its Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan – now celebrating her 20th season with the Ballet and one of only a handful of female artistic directors in the ballet world.

Zack Grubbs and Courtney Connor Jones in “The Nutcracker” /Courtesy of Peter Mueller

“I wanted to make the production funny, creative and exciting. And then there’s this beautiful music too. For many dancers and choreographers, ‘Nutcracker’ is one of their first professional experiences,” Morgan said. “After over 100 years [premiering in St. Petersburg Dec. 1892], it remains a true holiday classic. Like many other American ballet companies, it accounts for a significant portion of our annual sales – almost 50 percent just a few years ago.”

But the Cincinnati Ballet, founded in 1963, defies normal descriptions, Morgan says. As a “smallish, mid-range dance company,” they can be more innovative – even “feisty.” And the company has embraced the city, making it their home, working with local youth who, with scholarships, get the chance to develop their dance skills and technique.

“Our company is diverse with international and Black dancers making up 30 percent,” she said. “And as companies nationwide see declines in attendance, we’ve committed ourselves to changing the art form to make it more accessible and relevant, particularly to minority youth. That’s why we work with the city’s public schools. We want young talent of all races. I want them to love ballet as much as I have for so many years. And I want to help more women secure opportunities as choreographers and directors in what have long been male-dominated positions.”

One dancer, six seasons with the Cincinnati ballet and a soloist for the past two, says the art form remains a viable and satisfying profession, adding that it requires “focus, commitment and hard work.”

“I began dancing at 5 and have been doing so professionally since 18 – there’s nothing else I’d rather do,” said James Gilmer, 23, a Pittsburg native whose ethnicity includes Barbadian, Native American and white.

“I will dance the role of the Snow King in ‘Nutcracker’ this year and also the Arabian dancer. It’s a ballet that everyone performs, young students and professionals. I wouldn’t say I look forward to it as much as I relish the chance to learn new roles and dance with new people. And then, there’s the music,” said Gilmer, who like most of the company has also moved to Cincinnati.

He notes that while there have long been Blacks in the larger companies, their stories have not often been shared. That is, not before Misty Copeland hit the scene.

“I love her and her dancing and she’s elevated her career to the point that she inspires young dancers no matter what their color,” he said. “She’s pushed the boundaries for us all and helped me believe I can push myself to succeed in any direction I chose to go.”

The Nutcracker runs from Wednesday, Nov. 23 – Sunday, Nov. 27 at the Kennedy Center. Dozens of local children will join the Cincinnati Ballet on stage, while the Arlington Children’s Chorus will lend their voices to the dazzling snow scene. Call 202-467-4600 for tickets.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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