Somehow It’s Wonderful Every Year

Hampton Ballet Theatre School presents 10th ‘Nutcracker,’ 90 dancers strong
Sara Jo Strickland, founder and director of the Hampton Ballet Theatre School, addressed a class on Tuesday as the company prepared to stage “The Nutcracker” at Guild Hall next week. Durell Godfrey

The costumes are hung on two long racks with nametags attached, ready to go. A few feet away in the Hampton Ballet Theatre School’s studio in Bridgehampton some prop candy canes and swords, gold crowns and feathery angels’ wings sit this way and that. Out on the floor, Sara Jo Strickland picks up her smartphone and restarts the Tchaikovsky music, and the dancers glide into motion again.

When they walked through the door these dancers were kids. Some as young as 4, they hailed from across the South Fork. But out on the floor for this three-hour Sunday rehearsal they were transformed into Sugar Plums and Toy Soldiers, Harlequin Dolls and Dew Drops, the Mouse King or whatever roles they have in the school’s 10th annual perfor­mance of “The Nutcracker,” which will run at Guild Hall from Friday, Dec. 7, through Dec. 9 this year.

“A lot of people tell us that our show is what starts off their holiday season,” said Ms. Strickland, a former ballerina who has been teaching and choreographing dance for more than 30 years.

When Ms. Strickland started the school in the 2007-8 season, the company consisted of just six children. Its holiday performance of “The Nutcracker” was far different from the elaborate production it puts on today. 

This year, the company numbers 77 dancers between the ages of 4 and 18, plus nine adults. Ms. Strickland, along with two partners, has opened a second studio in the Bridgehampton Community House offering additional classes in tap, jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary dance. For the four performances at Guild Hall, Ms. Strickland will also import three professional male dancers — Nick Peregrino, Josep Maria Monreal, and James Stevko.

She believes giving her older dancers the experience of performing with partners is important if they continue their careers as ballerinas. 

Most of the elaborate costumes for “The Nutcracker” were designed by Yuka Silvera, and a few dozen additional people contribute annually to the show in other ways, from set design to photography, videography to sound. On performance days the dancers’ moms usually help with backstage costume changes, which can be hectic for a cast this big.

“We’re working with a lot of very young dancers, and we’ve had just about everything happen that could happen over the years during our performances,” Ms. Strickland admitted with a laugh. “We’ve had shoes fall off. Headpieces go flying. One year we had to hold the curtain on opening night because when the music started, one of the girls sitting on the stage was so nervous she started crying and couldn’t stop. We waited. Another year, it was very funny, a Sugar Plum leaped into the clock onstage and all you heard was this big crash.”

“I don’t know how it all works out in the end, but it always does,” Ms. Strickland added. “And when it does, it’s wonderful.”

Ms. Strickland makes it a point to challenge her dancers year after year to make sure they keep progressing. Currently, a record 22 members of the company are dancing on pointe (on their toes) -- a significant achievement in a dancer’s life.

Jillian Hear, a 17-year-old East Hampton High School senior who will share the role of Arabian Princess with Holiday Bovio in this year’s production, has been with the school for 9 of its 10 years. She said Ms. Strickland’s knowledgeable, caring approach is a big part of what’s kept her and many of her fellow dancers returning.

“We’re like a big family here, and she is amazing; she’s like our second mom,” Jillian said of Ms. Strickland. “I was pretty little when I first started, but once I did I just felt like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And I think the discipline I’ve learned here has helped me in school too. She [Ms. Strickland] is very real with us, which I appreciate. She builds us up when we need it, and when we need to step up our game, she tells us that too. She knows how to reach everybody individually.”

Wendy Ordonez, who will dance several roles in this year’s “Nutcracker,” said she has had a similar experience.

“I started just four years ago, pretty late in the game,” said Wendy, who is 17 and attends East Hampton High. “I used to see ballet on YouTube videos and think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’ But after one class here, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I just fell in love with it. Now, I’m so committed.”

The last trait is important, because ballet requires commitment. Many of the dancers attend classes from four to seven times a week. Ms. Strickland said she begins casting “The Nutcracker” in her mind when the company reconvenes at the end of each summer, and with every year the competition for roles becomes more competitive. 

She finds enormous gratification in seeing her dancers master more skills.

“It’s important to me to let them know there are these dreams they can obtain if they work hard,” Ms. Strickland said. 

Hudson Galardi-Troy, 15, one of the company’s leading male dancers, is scheduled to rise to the major role of Snow King this year. Hudson, who will dance with two Snow Queens -- Lauren Gabbard and Sedona Silvera -- also performed as an actor at Bay Street Theatre and in other productions. He said nights like the four-performance run of “The Nutcracker” are part of the reward for all the work.

“When I was younger I thought ballet dancing was for girls, but what I found since then is it takes a lot of work and strength and conditioning,” Galardi-Troy said. “Strength is a big part of the lifts, but it’s also a lot about technique.”

Other top-level students in this year’s production are Beatrice DeGroot and Samantha Prince, sharing the roles of the Dew Drop Princess, and Devon Friedman, dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

And when it all does comes together? For 10 years now (and counting), the challenge for the Hampton Ballet Theatre School hasn’t changed.

“The goal is always to make the difficult look easy,” Ms. Strickland said. “And that’s what we try to achieve.”

Tickets to “The Nutcracker” cost $15 to $45 in advance at hamptonballettheatreschool.com or 888-933-4287, and $20 to $50 at the door.