Marine, ballet instructor stages ‘The Nutcracker’ in military style
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Leave it to a Marine to stage “The Nutcracker” with dancing commandos.
Here at the University of Saint Joseph auditorium, where Iraq War veteran Roman Baca puts the finishing touches on his annual, military-themed Nutcracker, there’s a definite esprit de corps.
Wooden soldiers do battle against the Mouse King with the precision of a Parris Island drill formation. Kids dressed as Army Rangers scramble over a giant, wrapped present. An actual master sergeant from the Connecticut Air National Guard appears in the party scene, wearing his uniform.
At the center of it all is Baca himself, dancing as Drosselmeyer, the mysterious mystic who brings a toy nutcracker to life — only this Drosselmeyer is an anguished war veteran tormented about sending his beloved nephew off to battle. He’s also a colonel.
“I’ve given myself a promotion,” Baca laughed, as his 15 professional dancers and 60 kids and amateur dancers warmed up around the theater.
This is his third, military-themed “Nutcracker” in Connecticut. He invites veterans’ groups to the show each year, along with the public, and has a Marines Toys For Tots collection associated with it.
“It’s the perfect merging of the two worlds I’ve inhabited for so long,” Baca explained. “For most ballet dancers, ‘The Nutcracker’ is their bread and butter. I’ve been able to look at this story and re-imagine it.”
This particular night is the dress rehearsal. Everyone is in costume, the sets and lighting cues are in place, and Baca will run through the show twice. It’s shaping up to be a long evening.
Out in the mostly-empty seats, Tracy Dorman, executive director of Ballet Theatre Company, watched closely.
“It’s a very traditional version, overall, but Roman’s military twist gives it a real ending,” Dorman said. “It creates a strong story without destroying the original vision.”
As generations of audiences know, “The Nutcracker” is the story of young Clara, who receives a magical nutcracker at a holiday party. After falling asleep that night, she embarks on a fantastical journey that includes dancing mice, snowflakes, angels, flowers, a Sugar Plum Fairy and a Nutcracker Prince.
All of that remains prominent in Baca’s version of the show. But he’s tweaked the story to include a young man about to be deployed. Clara’s dreamscapes represent the fears and hopes of families separated from someone serving in the military.
“They love that Marine so much and no matter what they do, that Marine is going to go off to war and may not come back,” Baca said.
Backstage, some of the non-dancers in the show got into costume and waited to perform.
Master Sgt. Peter Jones stood in the hallway, his uniform immaculate. His two daughters, 8-year-old Nina and 10-year-old Mia, are in the show, as is he.
“I’m in the party scene,” he said. “When Roman asked me if I would do it, in uniform, I thought it was an honor. You can tell he has a military background, because the battle scenes are very disciplined.”
Soon, dress rehearsal began. The show’s familiar music filled the theater, and Baca himself appeared, wearing a black topcoat, white knee socks, a white ruffled shirt and a pink vest. His Drosselmeyer also sports a bunch of war medals.
“Places!” he shouted.
For the next two hours, delighted tykes twirled about the stage and graceful adults danced with professional precision. There were set changes to practice, entrances to coordinate and a big, Russian nesting doll costume to run through its paces.At one point, Baca’s wife, dancer Lisa Fitzgerald, sneaked out front to watch from the audience. Her role, the Sugar Plum Fairy, isn’t until the end of the show.
“For us, this was quite natural,” she said. “It was difficult, at first, to have everyone on board with the concept, but it’s grown every year. We took places where the story is kind of fuzzy anyway and cleared things up.”
The final image, of the nephew character saluting the audience, is one of those moments.
Baca said he wants it to start a gentle conversation about what it means to serve your country. “This is an opportunity to at least give a window into the beginnings of a conversation about those people who have done so much for their country,” he said.
Call Jim Shelton at 203-789-5664. Follow him on Twitter @JimboShelton.