January 20, 2022

A Christmas classic

‘Nutcracker’ dancers excited for live show

Photo provided by Kevin Halpin

Cortland Performing Arts Institute dancers stage a “Nutcracker” every two years

Gabriella Williams of Marathon said one technical move she’s had to master for this year’s “The Nutcracker,” is the Italian fouette.

“It’s like, you kick one leg out. On that same leg, you fouette around to make an attitude, she said.
Ballet has its own language.

Imagine a dancer kicking one leg up to the sky, while moving the other foot onto tippy toe, swinging the first leg down, turning and pushing the leg behind you, swinging it up again and spinning on that tippy toe.

This is a move Williams has had to perfect for her Snow Queen role in this year’s Cortland Performing Arts Institute’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

Over 100 dancers will take the stage at SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Fine Arts Theatre — 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 4 and 2 p.m. Dec. 5 at the college campus.

People need to go to www.cortlandperformingarts.com in advance for tickets. They can only be bought online, not at the door. People will need to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test to attend. Masks are required.

Photo provided by Kevin Halpin

Alexis Bilodeau, 12, a seventh-grader at McGraw High, left, plays Clara in Cortland Performing Arts Institute’s “The Nutcracker.” On right is Gwyneth Horton, 14, a ninth grader at Cortland High, who is playing the Nutcracker.

Williams, 17, a senior at Marathon High School, has been a dancer in the Cortland PAI for 15 years. She’s done five or six “Nutcracker” performances over the years.

Williams has her fouettes down.

“I had never done them before. Miss Cassie said, ‘Go for it. If you can’t do it, we’ll fix it.”

“We have practiced them in class but not en pointe,” she said of the move to stand on tippy toe in ballet shoes. “That’s when I had to learn it.”

Miss Cassie is Cassie Halpin, a dance teacher and daughter of Cindy Halpin, president of PAI. Cindy is in charge of the program, running it with her husband, Kevin Halpin, and other daughter, Aisling.

“She is amazing,” Williams said of Miss Cassie. “She has the most perfect feet. She makes everything look easy.”

The two have been working on the Snow Queen role.

Kevin, chair of SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts Department, said their kids are running and staging a lot of the show this year. Both girls have theater degrees from college. They’ve been involved with PAI for years.

Kevin teaches theater and dance and is a choreographer and director of college musicals and plays. Cindy is a choreographer as well and has been a part of many college productions.

Kevin Halpin said each show has a slightly different cast. On average there are 100 to 120 students, from little 3-year-olds, to college age adults, in each show. Because of the littler children not able to be vaccinated, everyone in the company will be masked.

“This year, because of COVID-19, we did something we don’t usually do. We have understudies for our leads,” said Cindy Halpin.

Even if the kids don’t get sick, but get quarantined, the troupe is in a lurch if a cast member can’t appear.

“You have to be prepared,” said Cindy Halpin. “It’s been a really nice experience. They have been helpful and kind about it.”

“The Nutcracker” is performed every two years by CPAI, which has dance studios at the Marketplace Mall on Main Street, Cortland.

“It’s big,” Kevin Halpin said. “It’s a lot of work,” said Cindy Halpin.

The public will see advanced level pirouettes, advanced level partnering and lifts.

“We started (staging) it when PAI was still part of the college,” said Kevin Halpin. “We have been producing a “Nutcracker” since 2006.”

The show is a long-standing tradition in American ballet and is a holiday celebration.

“The ballet began back in 1800 …We are still telling the story in 2021… People all over the world love ‘Nutcracker,” he said.

“There are so many wonderful opportunities for our young dancers,” Kevin Halpin said. “As well as college students … It’s about family. It’s about courage. It’s about the joy the holiday season brings.”

And the Halpins are happy to be staging productions for a live audience again.

“It’s good,” said Kevin Halpin. “It’s nice to be going back to something, playing it live … It’s going really well. Everyone is excited.”

Cindy Halpin likes to see the younger kids interacting with the college students, who are proving to be mentors. Students are learning advanced ballet moves, dancing en pointe and doing classical ballet partnering.

“Everyone was disappointed when we had to cancel it last year. Our ‘Nutcracker’ is different than the traditional and is theatrical. We include everyone in the show,” she said.

Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Alexis Bilodeau is Clara in
“The Nutcracker,” being staged Dec. 4 and 5 at the Dowd Fine Arts Center at SUNY Cortland.

Alexis Bilodeau, 12, a seventh-grader from McGraw, will play Clara in the piece.

“It’s going good. I have to put a lot of energy and acting into it,” she said. “I don’t have to learn any (new) moves. But I have to do pirouettes well… We work really hard. I am used to it. I feel I am a pretty hard worker.”

The first act is the story telling part of the ballet. The second act is when Clara, the main character, travels to the land of the sweets. A different group comes out to dance for her, said Cindy Halpin. There are plum dancers, court dancers, chocolate dancers, coffee dancers, a ‘Waltz of the Flowers.”

“We added a varieties of gum drops for the hip hop kids,” said Cindy Halpin.

“The second act is the land of sweets. It has many varieties. That’s when we can include advance, beginners, hip hop. Everyone gets to be a part of it. That’s very important to us. Regardless of age, level and experience, they have the same opportunity to participate,” said Cindy Halpin. “It’s just amazing to watch the kids every year.”

“It’s really exciting,” said Bilodeau. “We have not been able to do ‘Nutcracker’ for three years…it’s fun to be back on a big stage.”

Gwyneth Horton, 14, a ninth-grade Cortland girl, is playing the Nutcracker. Kids had to audition for the part, learning a combo that went with the music that goes with the role, she said. She did ‘Nutcracker’ choreography, snow choreography and the Clara part and got the Nutcracker role.

Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Gwyneth Horton, 14, will play the Nutcracker in Cortland Performing Art’s Institute’s version of “The Nutcracker” at SUNY Cortland Dowd Fine Arts
Center stage.

“I was pretty excited. It wasn’t something I expected.” She’s got to perfect her second turn moves. “There are a lot of them in this dance. It’s hard to keep up.”

“It’s going really well. We have it all learned and it’s been so fun because everyone in that scene, I am super close to,” Horton said.

“I love coming here,” she said of the CPAI studio. “Even if I am having a bad day, I come here and it’s better.”

“I’ve watched previous Snow Queens in PAI,” said Williams. Williams has done five or six Nutcracker shows with the group. She’s been working with Cassie Halpin on the part. Cindy Halpin said the kids tend to advance through the parts.

“Kids say, ‘I remember when I was an angel. I remember when I was a gingerbread. The Snow Queen has to be the leader for the snowflakes. She remembers being a snowflake.”

Maddy Guido of Cortland, a senior at Cortland High School, has been dancing for 13 years.

“I am a dew drop … I lead the little dew drops in their own dance. This dance is kind of funky. I have to lead the little kids and the big kids. I am doing ballet en pointe. It gets a lot easier with practice. It’s definitely not easy.”

She practices six days a week as a rule. It’s her first time doing the part.

“I love it … I have probably done five ‘Nutcrackers.’ I love the show. It’s so fun. Because it’s Christmas time.”