Lylah Habeger (left) and Jaila Ramirez lead the Konfeta Corps during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at Juneau Dance Theatre. The ballet will be performed in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.At.Kalé auditorium Friday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre)

Lylah Habeger (left) and Jaila Ramirez lead the Konfeta Corps during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at Juneau Dance Theatre. The ballet will be performed in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.At.Kalé auditorium Friday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre)

‘Nutcracker’ tradition, with a twirl of new choreography

This year’s performances feature a cast of 93, ages 5 to 78

Zachary Hench, artistic director of Juneau Dance Theatre, may have been too young to remember the first time he was on stage for a performance of “The Nutcracker,” but he knows the story well.

His mother, a teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, was asked if her two-year-old could be carried around on stage during a party scene.

“Apparently I didn’t want to do it,” said Hench. Then they promised him cookies and milk on stage, and that did the trick.

Hench, 46, has been either performing, choreographing, teaching and/or directing “The Nutcracker” ever since, the last eight years in Juneau.

The dance theater company has been performing the Tchaikovsky ballet since 2005, said executive director Bridget Lujan. This year features a cast of 93, 26 of whom are “en pointe,” meaning skilled dancers who can perform on the tips of their toes. There will be four performances in the auditorium at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

Cast members range in age from 5 to 78, Lujan said. This year there are two guest soloist artists featured: Julia Rowe with the San Francisco Ballet and Ezra Thomson with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Several members of the cast have developed strong local followings, such as Viktor “Bell” Tkachenko.

Elizabeth Eriksen dances as the Konfeta Lead in a rehearsal of “The Nutcracker” at Juneau Dance Studio. The ballet will be performed in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.At.Kalé auditorium Friday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre)

Elizabeth Eriksen dances as the Konfeta Lead in a rehearsal of “The Nutcracker” at Juneau Dance Studio. The ballet will be performed in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.At.Kalé auditorium Friday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre)

Hench admits he was somewhat weary of “The Nutcracker” by the end of his 22 years on stage. He had performed it professionally hundreds of times, starting at age 16 with the renowned Boston Ballet Co. He did 54 shows during that six-week run, which is “a heck of a lot of shows,” he said. He was also a principal with the San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet.

“Once I retired from actually performing I felt differently about it,” said Hench. “I hear the music and get that magical feeling from when I was a kid,” he said.

Hench said he keeps “The Nutcracker” fresh by making changes and improvements each year. This year he has re-choreographed the Chinese tea dance, which is in the second act. Last year he re-choreographed the transition scenes.

The inspiration for this year’s redo of the Chinese tea dance came from his daughter, he said. Hench was thinking it was time to do something different with the Chinese tea dance, but didn’t know what until his daughter said, “spill the tea.” It’s slang for gossip or having the inside scoop.

The comment sent him into a creative pirouette. The new choreography features whispering and laughing, Hench said.

Not that it’s all Clara, Sugar Plum Fairy, Mouse King, etc. Hench had leading roles in ballets “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Le Corsaire,” “La Sylphide,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella,” among others.

“We have the real deal with Zak,” Lujan said. “I don’t think Juneau realizes his background and what he brings to the theater,” said Lujan.

The familiarity of “The Nutcracker” is part of its appeal, she said, noting that it is a holiday tradition for a lot of families.

“There’s always something fresh and new. I think it’s fun for patrons to look for new elements,” Lujan said. “Whether it’s new costumes, different choreography, the profiles of the guest artists — that’s part of it for a lot of people.”

There are some new costumes this year, she said. The wardrobe is a nice mix, “with some 20-year-old costumes and some brand new,” said Lujan. The soldier costumes are original.

This year’s production feels more relaxed than the 2022 season, the first back from COVID-19, Lujan said.

“Last year was our return to normal, and we all felt a little rusty. There was some illness through the cast, understudying,” she said. “It felt a little more frenzied.”

This year they’ve had more time to focus on the creative side and the updates.

“It’s really exciting,” said Lujan.

Contact Meredith Jordan at meredith.jordan@juneauempire.com or (907) 615-3190.

Know & Go

What: “The Nutcracker”

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2; and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3.

Where: Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé Auditorium, 1639 Glacier Ave.

Admission: $30 premium seat; $25 adult; $20 senior/youth; $55 for the Land of Sweets Tea and Tour, which includes admission to the ballet and premium seat.

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