Darien Arts Center brings a floral twist to a holiday tradition with all-new Nutcracker

DARIEN — A familiar holiday tale is getting a new look as the Darien Arts Center revamps its classic Nutcracker ballet.

Since its origins in 1892, The Nutcracker Ballet has been a staple of any dancer’s winter season, from internationally renowned companies to local ballet studios.

In her first season as director of dance at the Darien Arts Center, Claire Mazza is bringing her own twist to the classic this holiday season.

Having performed in different Nutcrackers over the years, both as a student and professional dancer, Mazza is using the opportunity to create a more cohesive story for Darien ballet students, she said. 

“I never envisioned that I would choreograph a full Nutcracker in a season,” Mazza said. “To recreate something that I've been a part of since I was a little kid — I feel honored to be able to do it, to be honest. Not everyone gets the opportunity.”

The show can often seem more like a series of magical vignettes than one cohesive story, especially in a Land of Sweets that features non-sweets like tea, coffee and flowers.

Mazza found inspiration in the final number of the show — the Waltz of the Flowers — as a way to portray the different nationalities and more cohesion. Each dancer will represent a flower from their respective nations, from Chinese plum blossoms to Arabian tulips to English roses.  

“I've always been drawn to that piece of music the most, and I thought to myself, ‘What if they were all flowers?’” Mazza said. “Because flowers and countries really do go hand in hand.”

As a context frame, the protagonist Clara’s dream is inspired by a story Drosselmeyer is writing for a local newspaper about botany. 

Mazza said the dancers really threw themselves “full-throttle” into the new choreography, excited for the opportunity to dance in a version specifically made for them.

“I think that they were excited to create something new altogether,” Mazza said. “That was sort of fun, especially for the older ones. They felt a little bit of ownership because they were thinking, ‘Oh, this is a new original,’ and that's a really special thing. Sometimes you don't get that until you're professional.”

The dancers will also have the chance to perform the Nutcracker’s often challenging partner work and lifts with a professional dancer for the first time — their instructor, Alejandro Ulloa.

“The students have never done that and it's very exciting to see their reactions up there,” Ulloa said. “I tell them ‘enjoy the process. Have fun with it. I know it's hard, but you have to have fun with it.'”

In a ballet that is a test for any dancer’s stamina, Ulloa said the company dancers have handled the challenges of a new Nutcracker in stride.

Ulloa said it was “gratifying” to work with the dancers on such a formative ballet experience. He performed it over a decade ago as a student in Nicaragua and now as an instructor in Darien.

The Darien dancers “get along, they are friends, they grew up together,” he said. “For them to be able to experience something like this where things get really hard, they have each other to support each other as well. That’s been beautiful to watch.”

While much of the ballet will be new, Mazza and Ulloa said there will still be much of the familiar Nutcracker scenes audiences know and love, both in some of the enduring choreography and in the spirit of the show.

“As long as the kids enjoy what you're doing, then they will then appreciate the story, they will appreciate the production, they will appreciate all the hard work that was put into it," Ulloa said.

Mazza said she was honored to bring not only a new production to Darien, but also to create new memories to a show that is so special for young dancers. 

“It's a huge privilege,” Mazza said. “It's a huge responsibility — that's how I feel about it — and a big privilege to be able to help shape these kinds of memories that I know that I still hold on to.”

While tickets for this weekend's shows at noon and 3 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4 are sold out, tickets still are available for the noon and 3 p.m. shows on Dec. 10 and 11. For information and tickets, visit https://register.darienarts.org/CourseCatalog/Tickets/EventView.asp?EventID=21