PE ELL — The usual Saturday afternoon activity in this town of 632 is hardly surprising: sports. But on Dec. 10, the Washington Ballet Theater nearly sold out of its 260 tickets for the first-ever production of the classic ballet, “The Nutcracker.”
Yep, that’s almost half the town, showing up to watch kids in special footgear, and not the kind with cleats.
The audience arrived mainly in work boots and denim and flannel, with a few dressier touches here and there. One woman turned out in full camouflage gear, as if she’d just come in from the hunt. Girls spun around in tutus, even if they weren’t in the show. The kids only sat still in their metal folding chairs during the first act. After giving their own interpretation of ballet during intermission, the second act stage dancers had to compete with them.
They were in a gym, after all. It’s the kind of place where the scoreboard reads, “In memory of our greatest fan Joe Smaciarz.”
And not a single person in the audience seemed to mind.
“This is a very new experience for a lot of people,” said town resident Denise Brooks. “It’s something culturally different for the community here in Pe Ell.”
Brooks was there with her daughter, Angela Holmes, whose daughter Addyson performed in the second act as a gingerbread cookie. They represented three generations who grew up in Pe Ell, and Brooks said the family could trace its roots back seven generations.
The only place any of them had ever seen ballet performed before was at Centralia College, and that was also a production of “The Nutcracker.”
Addyson, 8, had only performed once before, in a school play she described as a “little one.” Her mother said her favorite part of “The Nutcracker” is getting carried around on stage by the gingerbread chef. If she performs in the play again, she wants to be one of the flowers because they wear “pretty dresses.”
“She loves it,” said her mother. “Every day I ask her, did you learn anything? And she says ‘yes.’ Then I ask her if she had fun, and she says, ‘yes.’”
Addyson was one of 18 Pe Ell youth who auditioned and were cast to perform with the 50 Ballet Theater of Washington dancers in the production. This put her alongside stars of the show, such as Giovanny Garibay, 13, who received cheers for his flawless split leaps during both acts. A split leap, for the uninitiated, is when the dancer leaps up into the air, legs akimbo in a full split. He reaches out to touch his toes before landing.
From Centralia, Garibay has only been dancing for one year, which is hard to believe, given his apparent skill and passion. His original purpose was to serve as translator for his younger brother, who spoke only Spanish. But the dance bug hit him hard. “I want to make a profession out of it,” he said. “And dance till I can’t dance anymore.”
Angela Holmes noted that parents are discouraged from showing up to watch their children during training and rehearsals. “At first I was opposed to this,” she said. “But once I realized she was happy and had no complaints, and that she probably cooperated more so than if I’d been there, I thought it would be exciting. It’s a huge surprise to wait and see them in performance.”
Veteran dance producers Nancy and Mick Gunter of Centralia Ballet Academy formed the non-profit production company this year with the express purpose of bringing these experiences to small, rural towns. Their funding comes from a combination of sources, from bake sales, yard sales, and ticket sales, to sponsorships from Centralia businesses. Pe Ell students participated for free.
“I’m from South Bend,” said Mick Gunter. “I would have loved to have this opportunity as a kid. For a lot of people, financially and geographically, it’s not available.”
Lisa Brunette, a Chehalis resident, is the award-winning author of the Dreamslippers mystery series and has hundreds of story design credits in digital games. She blogs weekly at www.lisa-brunette.com.