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Published: Thursday, 11/22/2012

'Nutcracker' is a hallmark for the holidays

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

(This version corrects time for Dec. 16 show)

Along with today's turkey feast and tomorrow's Black Friday sales, Nutcracker season has arrived. Turn on the gel lights, lace up the toe shoes, and cue the snowflakes!

The culmination of months of practice and preparation plus decades of tradition, each live performance of the Tchaikovsky ballet -- there will be hundreds around the country -- is a hallmark of the holidays as evergreen as that Christmas tree you're going to pull from storage next week.

The regional Nutcracker season will launch this weekend with Ballet Theatre of Toledo's productions at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Other productions in the region will follow on subsequent weekends.

And while many young dancers get their first stage experience as tiny human rats and mice, soldiers, candy canes, angels, and Gingersnaps, many adults savor the opportunity to dress up and enter a more splendid presence, year after year.

For Ernst Hillenbrand of Fremont, it's time to dust off his black velvet costume and become, once more, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, the character who starts the entire dramatic ballet rolling early in Act I.

If you've seen the production anywhere, you remember that it's his gift -- a wooden soldier doll that opens nuts with its teeth -- to little Clara which starts the fantasy spinning.

This year will be Hillenbrand's 60th Nutcracker not always as Herr Drosselmeyer, but as any of the characters who pirouette through E.T.A. Hoffman's magical tale.

"My first role in the Nutcracker was the Russian dance," Hillenbrand said. He was 16, a champion gymnast recently come to ballet, and living in Mainz, part of the Rhine River valley in Western Germany.

"I thought ballet was marvelous," he recalled, adding that, to his surprise, classical dance was more difficult than gymnastics. Plus, "There were all these lovely girls."

After switching from the beam to the barre, Hillenbrand continued study and became a soloist with the local company. "I had a marvelous life over there," said Hillenbrand.

The rise of the Third Reich caused him to rethink his future.

"I came to visit a relative in the U.S., looking for a better place to live," said Hillenbrand, adding, "I was not the typical immigrant."

From Salem, Ohio, where he first visited, it was not far to Fremont. He picked up English and settled in the Sandusky County seat.

He started his own ballet school, which is still active, and began a 25-year commitment leading the dance department at Heidelberg College (now a university) in nearby Tiffin.

And he joined Marie Bollinger Vogt and her Toledo Ballet, one of the oldest Nutcracker productions in the country.

"I remember days when we were in high schools doing The Nutcracker; then the Rivoli, the Paramount, and the Masonic," said Hillenbrand.

When Nigel Burgoine joined the Toledo Ballet as artistic director in 1996, he and Hillenbrand hit it off -- two former soloists from abroad, still teaching and performing in the art form they loved. "He invited me to do Drosselmayer," Hillenbrand said.

When Burgoine left Toledo Ballet to set up his own company in 2005, Ballet Theatre of Toledo, Hillenbrand -- and Drosselmeyer -- went with him.

Hillenbrand says neither age nor gender is a barrier to enjoying this time-honored production.

"It is so easy to understand. It has a good story and all kinds of different dances, so if somebody starts to take a nap, along comes the Russian dance and it will wake them right up."

Dancers in solo roles will include Morgan Smith and Kayla Thompson (Clara), and Harrison McClintock (Fritz) from the company. Returning to perform will be BTT alums Lauren Tenney (Snow Queen) and Tommy Cobau (King Rat), with notable locals including Bob Sheils of Channel 11 in the party scene and Channel 13's Tony Geftos (Mother Ginger).

Appearing in major solos will be Jay Goodlett, a former Cincinnati Ballet dancer (Snow Prince), Leonid Flegmatov of the New Jersey Ballet (Cavalier), and Dawnell Dryja of Grand Rapids Ballet (Sugar Plum).

For tickets and information call the BTT office, 419-861-0895 or the Valentine box office, 419242-2787.

Ballet Theatre will reprise its Nutcracker at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 in Sandusky's historic State Theater, 107 Columbus Ave. Information on tickets and dinner packages is available at 419-626-1347.

At Toledo Ballet headquarters in Franklin Park Mall, dancer DeAnn Gorun Trobaugh is back in rehearsals as Frau Stahlbaum, mother of Clara and Fritz, a role she has savored for years. Like many in this venerable company, Trobaugh moved up through the Nutcracker ranks from her youth. She now has children who also dance in the production.

Eric Hillenbrand, Ernst's son, grew up dancing and watching Nutcracker shows from the wings. Since 2007 he has created his own dashing version of Herr Drosselmeyer.

Also returning to cover major roles for Toledo Ballet's Nutcracker will be soloists from the Miami City Ballet, Mary Carmen Catoya and Renato Penteado.

This year's Toledo Ballet Nutcracker performances will be presented Dec. 15 and 16, in the Stranahan Theater. Shows Dec. 15 will be at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. One show will be at 2 p.m. Dec. 16. Tickets can be purchased at the Stranahan box office, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., by calling 419-381-8851 or online at www.stranahantheater.com.

The River Raisin Ballet Company will mount its annual Nutcracker production at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 1 and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 in the River Raisin Centre for the Arts, 114 South Monroe St., Monroe.

Created and choreographed by company founder Gail Choate-Pettit with Melissa Moore, the lavish production will star Jeff Boze as both Drosselmeyer and Mother Ginger. Hanna Rose Stangebye and Alex Hlavaty will dance the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier.

This is the largest cast the company, formed in 2004, has brought to the production.

Tickets and information are available at 734-242-7722, the box office, or www.riverraisincentre.org.

Lenawee County residents can choose from several Nutcracker productions, including the Ann Arbor Ballet Theatre's productions, 8 p.m. Dec. 14, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 15, and 2 p.m. Dec. 16 in the University of Michigan Power Center, 121 Fletcher St.

For ticket information, call 734-763-8587.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.



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