25 years of dance - 'The Nutcracker' moves to Cowen Center for anniversary

Published on Saturday, 2 November 2013 22:07 - Written by By Kelly Gooch kgooch@tylerpaper.com

London Hibbs started as one of the youngest participants in the local production of “The Nutcracker.” At the time, she played an angel.

“It was hard for me because I was so much younger than everybody else,” she recalled.

But the 12-year-old Tyler resident has since taken on other roles, including a soldier and cat. And although there have been some great years, she said she is particularly excited for this year because it’s the first time she plays two roles, one in each act.

“This … will be one of the best years,” she said.

“The Nutcracker” marks its 25th anniversary this year in Tyler, and the production will be the biggest and most elaborate to date.

When “The Nutcracker” started, the production included a stage “with very little else going on,” said Justine Pojanowski, director of the Tyler Junior College Academy of Dance.

But over the years, the production has gone from “very minimal in terms of theatrical sets” to a true “fantasy world,” with features such as a growing Christmas tree, motorized sleigh, a mechanical clock and “snow.”

“In the last 25 years, it’s turned into a professional-level production,” she said.

“The Nutcracker” typically takes place at Tyler Junior College’s Wise Auditorium. However, this year, it will take place in a much larger venue at the University of Texas at Tyler’s Cowan Center, with music from the East Texas Symphony Orchestra. Wise Auditorium accommodates about 700 people, while the Cowan Center seats 2,012.

“Just the hugeness of this year … really warrants a large stage accommodating a larger audience,” Ms. Pojanowski said.

Performances are scheduled for 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7. Performances on Dec. 7 also will feature principal dancers from the New York City Ballet.

School shows, which are abbreviated for student groups, are scheduled for Dec. 6 at the Cowan Center.

Ms. Pojanowski said she believes the production is special from a community standpoint because it involves people who don’t necessarily have a performing arts background. It gives them a way of expressing themselves.

She said it also becomes an annual tradition, and while it’s constantly growing, there’s the familiarity of the beautiful score, and the dancing is special. She said performers in the production include dance students and community members.

“It’s something that people grow with, and certainly the students grow with it …” Ms. Pojanowski said. It “becomes part of their development as performers.”

And she said the performers are a mixed group, with some who’ve done “The Nutcracker” for many years, and others who are just starting to get involved.

Still, she said, there is a sense of community in the production, and the continuity of the children and adults going from one role to the next.

This year, more than 100 people are in the cast.

Tisa Hibbs, 50, has narrated the school shows for years.

She said she believes “The Nutcracker” is important for Tyler because it allows people to see a ballet locally with various special offerings.

Ms. Hibbs said the costumes are fabulous, and throughout the years, the production has amassed beautiful sets. She also spoke highly of the music and dancing.

The production “combines theater with costumes, acting, (and) dance,” she said. “I think it’s a great art form.”

In fact, she still remembers the first production she went to in 1989. At the time, she said the sets were more homemade, and the dancing was simple.

Today, she said the school shows are a great opportunity for children to see part of the production and the sets.

Hollie Nowlin, 35, has a 10-year-old daughter, Anna, who is going into her second year with the production.

Last year, her family lived in Palestine but has since moved to Tyler. Ms. Nowlin said her daughter loved being part of it last year, so she is doing it again.

“Certainly this year it was really exciting because (the production is) at the Cowan Center and (involves the) symphony,” she said, adding that it’s a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to dance on such a stage.

“Being out there, it’s just an amazing opportunity. She’s so excited to be dancing with some really good dancers she looks up to, and she is excited to meet those coming from New York,” Ms. Nowlin added.

Tom Jones, 61, has been involved with “The Nutcracker” for 25 years, and has played Uncle Drosselmeyer for 24 years.

He said it started out as his wife challenging him to be in the party scene, and he has now been able to watch the production grow.

He said he’s enjoyed seeing people progress through the ranks of different parts, and it is something he and his wife can do to help youth in the area.

As far as audience members, Ms. Pojanowski said they want “The Nutcracker” to be accessible to young children.

“Our hope as artists and as people who try to bring art to the community … is that this will open children and young people’s eyes to these classical art forms that really need to be preserved. I think a lot of times children need to be brought to it,” she said.

Additionally, Ms. Pojanowski said, she hopes this year’s production encourages people to become audience members for the East Texas Symphony Orchestra and other performers.

She said she believes performing arts enriches lives, whether the individual is watching or participating, in a way that they can’t get from a phone application or You Tube video.

“People really need to be exposed to it and be able to have that be part of their life … All these people (who are) involved or come every year are getting that, getting to be enriched and nourished by arts,” Ms. Pojanowski said.

“We’re working hard to get the word out. It’s such a big year. It’ll be a great year,” she said.