‘The Nutcracker’ paved way for 20 years of ballet productions

For the past two decades the River Region Ballet has brought a brilliant array of arts together for a season of stage shows that are presented each year.

The most popular of those shows is the annual Christmas time showing of “The Nutcracker,” which is how Artistic Director Susan Ferrara said the ballet first came about.

“The River Region Drama Guild was already established and I worked quite a bit with them doing choreography. I was always being asked to do ‘The Nutcracker’ for the school and community. Once I thought we would be able to recruit enough dancers and put on a quality production that I would want, we decided to mount a Nutcracker and we created the River Region Ballet,” she said.

Ferrara said the ballet began from basically nothing. “I had already been teaching and teaching all age groups and had done a lot of performances locally, but it was a daunting task,” she said.

Part of the task was just familiarizing participants with the material.

“We had people come out for auditions not having any idea what ‘The Nutcracker’ was, they wanted speaking roles, tap [dancing] roles – they really had no idea,” she said.  But starting from nothing is sometimes a good thing too, Ferrara said.

“The creative process just coming up with the set and costume designs the first time was wonderful for me. That is the part that really keeps me going,” she said.

When it came time to take the stage that first December in 1994, the crowds showed up. Ferrara said she was never worried about the crowds coming anyway, it was more about the art to her.

“We were too busy creating the production and getting it to the stage that we weren’t worried about people coming to see it,” she said.

In the first few years the River Region Ballet produced the ‘The Nutcracker,’ it was well attended and ever since many of the same people who were in that first crowd come back and now bring their children and even grandchildren. In all, Ferrara said the River Region ballet sells 1,000 tickets a year for their Christmas performance, but the productions would be nothing without the dancers.

With around 100 dancers per year taking part in the production of ‘The Nutcracker’ alone, Ferrara said she has no idea how many people she has worked with over the past two decades.

In the spring the River Region Ballet will hold performances of “The Sleeping Beauty.” The fairy tale ballet was first performed more than 100 years ago and also features music by Tchaikovsky. The story is about a king and queen, good and evil fairies, a beautiful princess and a dream prince who converge to create a magical evening. “The Sleeping Beauty” has roles for 93 dancers and actors and utilizes lavish costumes and sets to create a memorable adventure.     Out of those she has directed, it is the children she has seen come up through the ballet that have meant the most to her.

“They start off children and then progress into the adult roles and solo roles. When I have younger dancers who come back as adults they can just jump back in. When you have done that much rehearsing over the years, it is in your body,” she said.

Ferrara said over the years she has seen so many young girls and boys grow into thriving adults and she feels being in the arts has been a help to them.

“They have done studies on how being in the arts helps in school. It provides them with structure that helps them through the rest of their lives. If you put on your resume that you were a ballet dancer, it helps so much,” she said. According to Ferrara the ballet is just a very special place for everyone, performers and the audience alike.

“I think it is very important and I hope we have an affect on a lot of people. I hope it has been a positive influence,” she said.  “A lot of people in this day in age don’t recognize the importance of the arts. Live performance, there is nothing like it. There is something tangible you cannot get through a screen that you get through live performance.”

When asked if she thought the River Region ballet would still be going strong two decades later, Ferrara is quick to answer.

“I really have never thought in those terms. I hope it lasts a long time, long after I am gone. When you begin something, you really don’t think about the end. It is hard to create something when you think about its demise, it is counter productive,” she said.

In the end, Ferrara said she is amazed by what she and all of the dancers, parents and volunteers have been able to accomplish in the past two decades.

“It is not what I expected. I didn’t set out to do any of this. It has just evolved. I am grateful it has it has been the experience of a lifetime. I couldn’t ask for more. St. Charles Parish is a wonderful community to live in. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have chosen this community to open my school,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything. I feel like I have raised hundreds of girls and they have all given back to me a thousand fold.”

The River Region Ballet’s 20th season begins again this year with their annual production of “The Nutcracker.” With its large cast, colorful costumes, and timeless music by Tchaikovsky, the full length version of the ballet is a seasonal classic. The company will also present the Sugar Plum Matinee – a shortened version of “The Nutcracker” designed specially for young children.

Auditions will begin for “The Nutcracker” on Sunday, Sept. 7 at noon for 6 through 12-year-old girls, boys in acting roles and adults for the party scene at the River Region Performing Arts and Cultural Center located at 15146 River Road in Norco. Auditions for girls 13 and up will begin at 1:30 p.m. at Images Dance Studio located at 105-A River Point Drive in Destrehan.

For more information call Ferrara at (985) 764-7678.

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