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January 27, 2022

Funny Papers Again Column | ‘The Nutcracker Ballet’: What Have I Been Missing?

Very soon, in fact just two days from today, the Monterey County Dance Foundation will present the Monterey County Dance Theatre’s 62nd anniversary production of “The Nutcracker Ballet” on the Robert Stanton Theater. That will be a treat for me as I have never seen an MCDT presentation of the “Nutcracker.” Never. Now, that may seem an odd statement for those who know of my past with that troupe, but I assure you it is true. No fake news here.

For those unaware of my contact with MCDT, let me give a quick recap: I first ventured into the Auditorium (you’ll have to forgive my using that designation for the theater, but that is the term I am most comfortable with because I am old) when I saw some activity about the building and found that it was move-in day for a Spring show, “Peter Pan” was opening in a week.

(For those of you not familiar with theater jargon, the final week before a show is known as “Hell Week”; if you’ve ever experienced it, you know why it is so named.)

It was a very active and crowded backstage, so I ventured outside and found a volunteer working on a stage set piece, a tepee, so I went back to where I rent a room and gathered some of my paint supplies and painted appropriate designs on a tepee. I didn’t have the funds at the time to attend the show, but I did return after the Sunday matinee and helped take down the apparatus used for flying the dancers and doing so I met Johnny Pickett of the famous Flying by Foy company. Little did I know at the time that Mr. Pickett and I would meet again.

A few months later I got a call from Jan Harkness asking if I would be on the backstage crew for the annual “Nutcracker Ballet,” and being a long-time theater rat I quickly accepted the position, no matter what it was. Let me take a second here to say that it was not the first time I had worked with Jan. Way back in 1970, I was a senior when Jan Hall was the dance captain for a production called “The Ziegfeld Follies,” so I knew she had some chops.

It was great experience seeing the large cast of young dancers supported by the older dancers, and ballet was a whole new world to a non-dancer like myself. But the duties backstage don’t allow for viewing of a production as the audience sees it, so I didn’t get a whole picture of the story nor did I see all the dance sequences. But I did come to enjoy a group of talented and dedicated dancers and all the family and friends who supported the troupe.

When it came time for the Dance Theatre’s next Spring production, I believe I was working on a show for the Stage Hands so was occupied, but sometime in the late Summer of 2016 I was once again called by Jan, but this time she wanted me to play the role of Herr Drosselmeyer in the upcoming 2016 production of “Nutcracker.” Wow. OK, cool. Little did I know at the time that would mark the first of four times I would play that wonderful character and would also portray William Shakespeare, Will Rogers and a 100-year-old Chinese emperor in the troupe’s Spring productions.

Add acting as emcee for the visual production, a result of the Covid lockdown, that makes 10 times I have worked with MCDT, and every time is a wonderful memory. And I can honestly testify that one can become quite attached to the troupe, many I have literally watch grow from young dancers to that time when they leave the troupe.

But there comes a time when every actor knows when to get off the stage, so the eye patch came off the last time after Herr Drosselmeyer flew off the stage in 2019’s 60th annual gala production; yes, flew. I met up again with Johnny Pickett, as did Clara, and it was the penultimate exit for my time with the “Nutcracker” cast.

But while no longer preforming, I will appear in front of the audiences at the 62nd anniversary production of “The Nutcracker Ballet,” albeit not in costume (or with makeup to cover the ravages of the ages that show on this craggy visage of mine; oh well, had to happen sometime). This is a great honor for me, but I have to admit it will be somewhat bittersweet as I will miss working onstage with this remarkable choreographer and the talented ladies of dance and, truth be known, I will miss the magical toymaker and all the times we had together.

So, back to the original statement: I have never seen a full “Nutcracker Ballet” as performed by the MCDT. Well, that is going to change this coming weekend as I will take a seat in the audience and witness this wonderful production that Pauline Hall started back in 1959 and which has now endured for more than six decades. I will experience what thousands of audience members have experienced over the past years and I am fully ready for the experience.

What I am not fully prepared for is that short reunion on Friday night just before the performance when I will make my way backstage and prepare to do my short introductory utterances. That will be the first time since 2019 I have seen the troupe in the theater they call home, and I know seeing all those wonderful smiles and all the beautiful costumes and, toughest of all, is to feel the excitement of opening night and not be a part of it, will be an emotional experience. But emotional feelings are a big part of the theater world and that will suffice for me.

Monterey County Dance Foundation will present this wonderful production this coming weekend, and if there are still tickets available, I highly recommend attending this South Monterey County tradition and see the magic for yourselves.

Take care. Peace.

Steve Wilson
King City and Greenfield Columnist
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