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Keeping up with the times: Sisters create a ‘Nutcracker’ for the 21st century

  • Sophie Schilling, top, Lexi Burnworth, facing from left, Ava Kelly, Eleanor Barlow and others rehearse for "A 21st Century Nutcracker", Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at The Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Grace Labich, left, and Sophie Schilling rehearse for the show that will not only feature ballet, but also other forms of dance, including hip-hop. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dancers rehearse for "A 21st Century Nutcracker", Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at The Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left, Elin Taylor, Khloe London, Lily McIntire and Eleanor Barlow practice their roles for “A 21st Century Nutcracker.” GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Grace Labich, left, and Sophie Schilling rehearse for "A 21st Century Nutcracker", Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at The Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • At left, Sophie Schilling leads young dancers in a rehearsal for “A 21st Century Nutcracker.” Above, from left, Eleanor Barlow, Lily McIntire, Khloe London and Elin Taylor prepare for Sunday’s performance. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left, Phoebe Maiella, Kai Healey and Gabriella Edwards rehearse. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lexi Burnworth rehearses for "A 21st Century Nutcracker," which will be presented Sunday at Amherst Regional High School. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dancers rehearse GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lexi Burnworth, center left, holds hands with Ava Kelly, center right, amid Grace Labich, top left, Sophie Schilling, top right, and others during a rehearsal for "A 21st Century Nutcracker", Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at The Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sisters Caddy Carlisle, left, and Ashley Carlisle, owners of The Center in Amherst, danced in “The Nutcracker” during their youth. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

Literature has “War and Peace” and “Ulysses.” Theater has “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” Classical music has Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Chopin’s piano compositions.

And when it comes to the great standards of the ballet world, there are few competitors, at least in popularity, to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” especially in North America.

But, as much as they love “The Nutcracker” themselves, Ashley and Caddy Carlisle see room for bringing fresh ideas and interpretations to the famous Christmas ballet — for building, as they call it, “A 21st Century Nutcracker.”

The sisters, who co-own The Center, a dance studio and playspace in Amherst that opened last fall, have tapped something of the spirit of the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton.” They’ve modified “The Nutcracker” storyline and added elements like African drumming, hip-hop dancing and a traditional Khmer dance, with varied costumes to match.

The show takes place Sunday at 4:30 p.m. in the Amherst Regional High School auditorium.

But the Carlisle sisters, who spent years performing in the yearly “Nutcracker” presented by Pioneer Valley Ballet when they were growing up in Amherst, say they’re also building on the work they do in their studio, where students are encouraged to draw ideas for dance from literature and other sources, and where other types of dance are studied alongside ballet.

“We wanted to do something that reflects our community, the different things we’re involved in and the things our students are interested in,” said Ashley Carlisle, 35. 

She and her sister also wanted to draw on the expertise of people they know in the local dance community who could offer ideas of their own. In addition, Carlisle said, staging a “Nutcracker” with varied dancing can offer a special appeal to audience members.

Ballet, she noted, is a difficult technique to master without years of training, so a presentation with something like hip-hop “can make a real connection with people — audience members can see the kind of stuff that makes them think, ‘I could do that.’ ”

From an organizational standpoint, it’s been quite an undertaking. The cast includes nearly 100 people, including many young children who are students at the center. The Carlisle sisters have brought in guest dancers, musicians, choreographers and volunteers to help put the program together — and they’ve been leading rehearsals since October on every Sunday, in addition to the their regular teaching schedule.

But Caddy Carlisle, 32, says the effort has been worth it.

“It’s been a lot of work but a lot of fun … everything just kind of flows out of the magic that you feel when you hear the music of ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”

Learning their steps

On the first Sunday in December, the two sisters were leading some of their youngest charges in a rehearsal at The Center, a modest studio (and former cafe) on Main Street, across from the Emily Dickinson Museum. On a wooden dance floor, lined by mirrors on one side, 10 girls between the ages of 5 and 7, all wearing colorful tutus, joined two teenage dancers for a sequence called “The Fairy Garden.”

As part of Tchaikovsky’s taped score sounded, the young girls formed two groups, each circling the teen dancers, Sophie Schilling and Grace Labich, their arms fluttering skyward. Then, in pairs, the young dancers held hands and glided toward the front of the room, where they handed plastic flowers to Ashley Carlisle.

After the first run-through, Carlisle had a suggestion for the girls. She dipped her right arm toward the ground and then let in flow in a wave-like way toward the ceiling and said, “When you’re doing this, your arm can look very beautiful — imagine it’s the wing of a bird.”

She and Caddy Carlisle estimate their “Nutcracker” is divided about equally between the traditional ballet and the changes they’ve introduced. For one thing, the ballet’s opening scene, a big Christmas party at which the mysterious character Drosselmeyer brings in several gifts for the children — including a nutcracker shaped like a small man — has been recast as a wintertime celebration.

“We have a Christmas tree,” said Caddy Carlisle. “But we also have a menorah, a solstice candle, things that speak to the more general idea of a season of celebration.”

The following scene, in which giant mice battle gingerbread soldiers and the Nutcracker, who has grown to life-size, replaces the soldiers with young ninjas; Ashley Carlisle says many kids and teens today are interested in martial arts, so the change made sense for their cast, especially given the expressive movements that are part of the martial arts.

And, she added with a laugh, “We’re pacifists, so we wanted to do something a little less military.” Their father, Christopher, is a longtime Episcopal minister.

Variations on the variations 

The sisters don’t want to give away all the secrets of the show before it takes place, but they say the second act of their “Nutcracker” will also include variations on the original, like hip-hop dancing and African drumming, as well as a dance called “Waltz of the Cosmos,” an ode to the beauty of the stars and planets.

At Sunday’s rehearsal, Ashley Carlisle also reminded her young dancers that they’d be on a much bigger stage for the Dec. 18 performance. Caddy Carlisle said she and Ashley have been working with the younger dancers in particular to have them “dramatize” their movements, as a way of realizing the scope of performing on the larger high school stage.

“We tell them to imagine themselves being under a giant magnifying glass,” she said.

The sisters say staging their own “Nutcracker” has probably proven less daunting than it might have been because of their background as both dancers and educators. Aside from their experience with Pioneer Valley Ballet and also American Ballet Theatre, both danced during college and have taught dance and choreography in various settings, including the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley.

They’re also passing dancing down to a younger generation close to hand. Ashley Carlisle’s two sons, ages 5 and 7, will be part of the show, as will Caddy Carlisle’s two sons, ages 11 and 18 months, and her four stepchildren, who range from 9 to 18.

Oh, and Christopher Carlisle will play the grandfather in the holiday party scene — and the Carlisle sisters will make a brief appearance themselves in the show.

“Caddy and I were unable to resist giving ourselves a few moments up onstage with Tchaikovsky's music — for old time's sake!” Ashley Carlisle said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettnet.com.

The Center’s “A 21st Century Nutcracker” takes place Sunday at 4:30 p.m. in the Amherst Regional High School auditorium. Tickets, which range from $8 to $12, can be purchased at The Center, 321 Main St. in Amherst, or online at thecenterdance.com.