The Sitka Nutcracker, An Alaska Tale: Show Takes Center Stage with an Enchanting Alaskan Twist

What do the following have in common:  A slime line, a gaggle of tourists, fireweed, bears, northern lights, mosquitos, and snow? If you guessed Alaska and the Nutcracker, you are correct. Wait, what? The Nutcracker?!?! Yes, in 2023 the Sitka Nutcracker takes on the Last Frontier.  

What do the following have in common:  A slime line, a gaggle of tourists, fireweed, bears, northern lights, mosquitos, and snow? If you guessed Alaska and the Nutcracker, you are correct. Wait, what? The Nutcracker?!?! Yes, in 2023 the Sitka Nutcracker takes on the Last Frontier.

The first production of Nutcracker came to Sitka in 1998. 25 years ago Melinda McAdams, the owner and lead dance instructor at Sitka Studio of Dance, wanted something that challenged her dancers and offered another type of performance opportunity. It was so well received that McAdams continues to mount a production in Sitka every other year.

Customized themes vary with each Nutcracker (e.g. The Animal Kingdom and The Land of Sweets), but the “Alaska Nutcracker” – which rotates in about every 4 years – seems to have an energy all its own. McAdams explains, “There just seems to be something special about this particular show. Dancers simply light up when they have the opportunity to perform in the Alaska Nutcracker.”

 

The Same Story with a Twist

It’s the same Tchaikovsky classic you know. The two-act ballet begins when a girl named Marie Stahlbaum is gifted a wooden Nutcracker doll at a Christmas party. After the clock strikes midnight, the doll comes to life and drama ensues.

While the music for the Nutcracker remains traditional, twists abound that give the story a definite Alaskan feel. Little bits and pieces of Alaskan life are peppered throughout the Party Scene. McAdams expands, “The party guests are entertained by dancing bears and a magical matryoshka doll.” Little jokes are sprinkled throughout, many of them inspired by the performers themselves, adding to the fun and hilarity of the show.

Unique aspects of Alaskan life, past and present, are skillfully woven into the traditional story. McAdams continues, “As the scenes change there is a battle between the Nutcracker doll and the Mosquito Queen. An eagle soars under northern lights. The workers on the slime line tap dance (in Xtratufs no less) their way through their work.”

“In another scene, a group of tourists arrive and tour the city. Can-can girls high-step through their dance. Berry pickers find the best berries. Crabs and jellyfish dance, along with a Fireweed Fairy.”  There are inside jokes that Sitkans understand completely, but there’s fun to be had by all.

 

They Keep Coming Back

The Alaska Nutcracker is also Sitkan in spirit. The energy of the show is contagious and the excitement is always at a high level. Senior dance studio pupils become some of the principal characters and often have solos.

Aezlynn Nichols, age 17, will be en pointe as the Snow Queen and is totally thrilled. “Snow has been my favorite scene ever since I heard about Nutcracker, and when I learned I got the part, I was over the moon. I want to honor the people who have had the role of Snow Queen before me, all of whom have been huge role models in my dance career,” says Nichols. She remembers having the big kids help her with makeup and costumes when she was younger, and now she is the “Big Kid” helping everyone else. These relationships are seen throughout, as older dancers mix and mingle with younger ones.

Several community members have been in multiple productions of the show. Joe D’Arienzo started in 1998 as the Nutcracker and has been in every show since. This time he will be playing Grandfather Stahlbaum. D’Arienzo can also be found behind the scenes constructing sets and helping with rigging.

Carole Knuth is another long-standing participant. She jokes, “I have had eight different husbands throughout my Nutcracker career.” Knuth has missed only one production. This time, Knuth will be playing a hot dog vendor, as well as working backstage fixing and fitting costumes with laughter and good cheer.

Ben Hughey, who portrays the Nutcracker in 2023, is a returning member to the troupe. Hughey fights Mosquito Kari Paustian (also a returning dancer) in the Battle Scene, which they choreographed themselves. Paustian emphasizes, “One of the great things about the Nutcracker Ballet, in general, is that students can always come back and continue to perform. There are so many different roles that it is easy to return as an adult who has been away from dance for several years.”

In addition to McAdams, this latest Nutcracker incorporates two more choreographers: Nancy Neel and Laura Turcott. Neel teaches at Sitka Studio of Dance and Turcott dances in the adult classes. Turcott, incidentally, danced as a child with the studio and has been in many Nutcrackers over the years, plus performing in other Sitka shows.

Neel and Turcott each created a dance for the show (Tourists & Northern Lights). The New Archangel Dancers (the only “outside” dance group) portray Ice Maidens and have their own choreography. The rest of the production succeeds solely because of McAdams’ creative magic.

 

Multi-Generational Endeavor

Another unique aspect of this Alaska Nutcracker is the number of Sitka family members performing together. The Stahlbaum family is just that – a real family, the Sitka Hames family. Morgan Hames, who plays Marie, and her father Andrew performed together in the 2019 production. They are joined this time by mom Kristin and sister Molly.

The same is true for Virginia Pearson and her mother, Martha. They will perform together in Waltz of the Flowers, along with a number of second graders as honeybees. Parents of performers also work backstage building sets, helping with hair and makeup, and providing supervision for younger dancers.

 

Labor of Love

With McAdams’ attention to detail, wry sense of humor, and nurturing ways, she clearly brings out the best in her performers. Her talent and creativity as a choreographer is evident. McAdams works to get the best possible performances from her dancers, makes sure everyone is ready by show time, and also nurtures her dancers throughout the year.

McAdams donates her time to the Nutcracker, while still teaching classes at Sitka Studio of Dance. She leaves the heavy fundraising to the Fireweed Dance Guild Board, who are responsible for raising funds so the show can go on. Donations from local Sitka businesses are instrumental. Families of performers donate time to help build sets and props, volunteer backstage, and help in any way necessary.

So, while the Nutcracker is a holiday tradition, for Sitka it is also a labor of love. The Alaska Nutcracker is loved even more for its fun and jokes about being an Alaskan and being a Sitkan. It truly takes an entire village to create this amazing show.

The Alaska Nutcracker is an experience unlike any other and surely not to be missed. The 2023 shows take place December 1, 2 & 3 at the Sitka Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased online at fineartscamp.org and at the door.

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