TORRINGTON — Gentle horns and tentative woodwinds filled the Warner Theatre, followed by an arpeggio of harp strings rising and falling — the ethereal music of “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
It was a dozen days before the opening on Dec. 7, and this was the first rehearsal at the Warner for dancers from the Nutmeg Ballet. They glided across the wide stage, leaping and pirouetting to the dreamy music, as dance instructor Denise Warner Limoli directed and corrected them. Behind the dancers was a colorful, 20-foot-wide theater-within-a-theater, a brand-new set piece that had never been on any stage before — built exclusively for the Nutmeg to mark its 50 years of existence.
“This is so spectacular,” said Victoria Mazzarelli, Nutmeg’s artistic director, seated near the middle of the 1,750-seat theater.
“This is the little theater, and that’s a piece of Clara’s home on the stage,” she said, referring to parts of the set created by Boston theatrical designer Roger LaVoie. “There’s a really beautiful Christmas tree, too, backstage. It’s an evergreen, with candles on it.”
As Brian Sciarra began setting up and testing lights, Mazzarelli’s husband, Thomas Evertz, studied the set’s dimensions so he could figure out his movements onstage as Dr. Drosselmeyer. Mazzarelli was reminiscing about her early years as a dancer and how her career has led to these final few days before a completely re-imagined “Nutcracker.”
“I’ve been involved in many different versions of ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” she said. “I remember my first time, being a shepherd with a little candy cane. It was maybe 1979 or 1980.”
That was before she became one of the brightest stars in Nutmeg’s history, a willowy teen with fluid movements and a 1984 gold medal winner in the New York International Ballet Competition at age 17. That award propelled her to a ballet career abroad, starting with Basel Ballet in Switzerland, where she was quickly promoted to principal dancer. She worked with some of the best choreographers in the world, including Hans van Manen, Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, whose influence led her to join the Frankfurt Ballet in 1990 as principal dancer. She also toured extensively and worked with Alonzo King, Ohad Naharin, Jan Fabre and Saburo Teshigawara before returning to Switzerland in 1996 to join the Zurich Ballet — again as principal dancer.
Mazzarelli recalled a production of “The Nutcracker” she was in in Dusseldorf, Germany, that departed from tradition. “It was not done at Christmastime,” she said. “It was not about Christmas. It was somehow...”
She paused in mid-thought, because on the Warner stage a dancer had just made a spectacular grand jeté. “Isn’t that beautiful?” she said, then resumed her story.
“It was a party and festivities. It was Clara’s birthday, and she actually runs away from home and she goes on a fantastic journey.”
In traditional productions, it is Christmas Eve, and Clara receives a wooden nutcracker in shape of a man, which a rowdy partygoer breaks. Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, repairs it. When guests leave, Clara gets up at midnight to check on her nutcracker. Drosselmeyer uses his magician skills to propel her on a journey to the Land of Sweets with her nutcracker, which has been transformed into a young man.
“It’s a fantastic story. She is growing up, and it’s all in the music,” Mazzarelli said.
As dancers whirled on the Warner stage, deep notes of a bassoon vied with a bright, high-pitched flute. “The music is so beautiful, so inspirational,” she said. “I never get sick of it.”
Mazzarelli said she is glad the young dancers get to take part in seven performances — three at the Warner and four this year at The Bushnell in Hartford. “Some of them have three or four roles. I always want to give them as many opportunities as I can,” she said.
Because the set is radically different from the one Campbell Baird designed more than 20 years ago, Mazzarelli has had to rework much of the choreography and staging. Other added details include lights to the wings and halos of angels. “And the mice are different,” she said.
The mice have all new costumes, as do many other characters.
“You forget sometimes that these are students, because they do so well,” she said. “And it’s all about the details. I know I drive them crazy sometimes, going over it, doing it again, doing it again, making sure they understand how they have to stand in relationship with their partner, or bowing or timing.”
Like founding director Sharon Dante, under whom she studied, Mazzarelli is concerned with details — a word that is on prominent display in the Nutmeg’s Premiere Studio. “When you watch a performance and you don’t know so much about everything, you don’t notice little mistakes. But you notice it as a professional. You see how the show runs with a certain timing. It’s smooth. It should be seamless. There should be a certain flow to it. But you do notice when it runs well. It’s pleasing to the eye.”
Although she faces many technical problems this year, in addition to managing 100 dancers ranging in age from about 5 to 18, Mazzarelli takes everything in stride. “The dancing has to be organized and rehearsed,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen. It’s hard to be the one who has to drive that, but I like it. When they’re successful, I’m happy, and then we’re all successful. When we get a great reception, it means we’ve all done our best. We’re here because we love it. And I just think the instructors bring in all the things that we know. You see it through the students.”
The music’s tempo and volume increased, and timpani, trumpets, trombones and more filled the room, building to a resounding climax, as the rehearsing students bowed.
“Sometimes I think it would be such a great feeling to be out there onstage, but now it’s a different time for me,” Mazzarelli said. “I love to watch our students succeed. It’s their time now.”
Tickets for the 2019 production of Nutmeg Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” are available through Nutmeg’s website, www.Nutmegconservatory.org. Warner Theatre performances are Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. Performances at The Bushnell in Hartford are Dec. 14 and 15 at 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.