‘Unbelievably magical’: Backstage at Portland Ballet’s ‘Victorian Nutcracker’

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PORTLAND — The gentle pitter-patter of pointe shoes filled the stage. Backstage crew members assembled large Victorian set pieces and the orchestra’s tuning sounds echoed throughout the theatre.

It was 6:15 p.m. Dec. 6 and the final dress rehearsal for Portland Ballet’s “Victorian Nutcracker” was about to begin.

As the biggest show of Portland Ballet’s season, with more than 80 people involved, artistic director and former company member Nell Shipman was alert and organized.

“There’s a lot of logistics that go into putting on a show this size,” Shipman said. “It’s about the coordination and the communication and making sure that everybody is where they need to be, when they need to be there.”

With clipboard in hand, Shipman kept her eyes on every aspect of the show, from her principal dancers to the orchestra’s conductor.

“We have a group of fantastic professionals who all come together to make this awesome holiday tradition come to life,” she said.

Portland Ballet has performed the Victorian-era classic since 1992, with sets, costumes, and characters inspired by Portland’s historic landmark, Victoria Mansion.

“It’s a really great connection that we share with Victoria Mansion and it’s nice to have two organizations that are all about Portland,” Shipman said.

For the past five years, the company has also performed shows such as the “Night of the Nutcracker,” inside the main stair hall of the Mansion.

“We’ve had a great partnership,” said Victoria Levesque, Victoria Mansion’s events coordinator. “We have actually adapted our programming to be more in line with the productions that Portland Ballet is working on.”

After one week of auditions followed by three months of rehearsals, Shipman explained how she feels watching her dancers learn and grow through the Nutcracker – a show that still gives her goosebumps.

“Every year when the final chords hit, and you see the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy on stage and the curtain coming down, it is just unbelievably magical,” she said. “Knowing all the work that has gone into it, followed by the joy that this show produces, is something so special.”

On stage behind Shipman, pointe dancers warmed up their feet while crew members rolled a 25-foot Christmas tree into place. Amid the backstage commotion was the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced by 27-year-old Kelsey Harrison, and her Cavalier, Luke Tucker, 28, practicing lifts and turns.

“We like to make sure to iron out the technical aspects before going on stage,” Tucker said.

“I like to think that if we can do it in all the chaos of backstage then we should be able to do it once everything calms down,” Harrison added.

The two company members have created a pre-show routine for every Nutcracker performance. They arrive at the theater two hours before curtain, take a warm-up class with the company, and do what they refer to as a walk and talk – a mix of discussion and dance for each moment of choreography.

“I always want to do at least a turn and a lift and anything from a previous run that didn’t go as smooth as we would’ve liked,” Harrison said. “We ask each other why did that happen and how can we fix it.”

Rehearsals for Harrison and Tucker began in November, giving them a gift of one month to prepare – in previous years, when Tucker lived in California, they had as little as one week.

“This year has been so much easier,” Tucker said. “We’ve been able to relax and even take it easy on some days.”

This is Harrison and Tucker’s third year dancing the lead roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, making for a partnership that Harrison trusts.

“He always stands with me backstage, gives me a hug, and then heads to the other side for his entrance,” she said. “I don’t know if he plans that, but it’s an important part of my ritual because it reminds me that I’m not alone, that I’m out there with somebody even though there is only two of us on the whole big stage.”

The couple command the audience’s attention through their partnership and invite them into the Nutcracker’s dream-like world with their dance.

“My hope is for the audience to lean in,” Harrison shared. “There is a lot of harsh reality in this world, and I want people to come here and have their faith in wonder, innocence, and magic renewed a little. I want them to remember what it’s like to think that anything is truly possible.”

The Snow Queen and King in Portland Ballet’s Victorian Nutcracker, which will be performed Dec. 21-23 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center.Portland Ballet dancers Kelsey Harrison and Luke Tucker performing in the “Victorian Nutcracker” as The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier.

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