November 2015

Hilton Head Dance Theatre presents The Nutcracker

Author: Karen Cerrati

For most of us, The Nutcracker is a glorious, magical, colorful start to the holiday season: The music! The costumes! The drama! The joy of the familiar winter fantasy and the Tchaikovsky score evoking memories from childhood.

Fortunately, this year for the thirtieth time, the Hilton Head Dance Theatre is presenting this classical ballet. Under the artistic direction of Karena Brock-Carlyle and John Carlyle, this gift to our community will showcase the talented dancers of the Hilton Head Dance School along with professional artists.

For some local families involved with the production, our Nutcracker is far more than a dance recital. This year is Connor Cooke’s fourth Nutcracker. The six-year-old started as a baby mouse, then moved up to a petite snowflake. She was a cook last year and will dance as an English cracker in this year’s performance. The experience is an important one, according to her mother Kara.

“Connor is learning so much from the older dancers and the professional dancers,” Kara said.
“What happens backstage may be even more exciting that what’s in front of the curtain.”

The excitement as the dancers prepare, control their emotions, make their entrances and respond to the music and the audience is palpable, she added. “My daughter now knows there’s a whole world backstage. This will stay with her and impact her response to every show she sees.”

This experience is exactly what Karena and John Carlyle had in mind when they staged the first Nutcracker in 1985 at the old Community Playhouse on Dunnagan’s Alley.

“We needed to give our students the opportunity to perform, and the second act of The Nutcracker was it,” John said. “Bill Dunnagan was tremendously supportive as was the community. We sold out. That ballet is still what we work toward year after year.”

Many Hilton Head Dance School students start performing at age three or four, and their roles change every year. They literally work their way up, acquiring the skills and poise needed for the more difficult showcase dances.

“It’s such a privilege, really,” John said. “Many of our dancers stay with us for 15 years. What an honor and a responsibility; these kids are a big part of our lives.”

It’s also been a learning experience for the Carlyles. “One year, the soldiers were afraid of the mice,” John said with a smile. “We had to fix that.”

Hilton Head Island is lucky that Karena and John were persuaded by Margaret Jones, Mary Coleman and Allyson Harden to open a dance school over 30 years ago. Karena was a former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and had shared the stage at Lincoln Center during the Golden Era of that prestigious company. John studied at the acclaimed Harkness School of Ballet and danced professionally with several companies before joining Karena at the Savannah Ballet.

Karena has stayed behind the Nutcracker’s curtain, choreographing, staging, designing sets, making costumes and head pieces. Over the years, John has danced many roles in the Hilton Head production and partnered with the students.

An important part of the Dance School’s mission has long been to bring professional dancers to the local productions. From the beginning, guest artists brought their artistry to our local stage. They have taught by example, inspiring and challenging young dancers with their discipline, talent and dedication.

Katie Finger Girardi, who started at the Hilton Head Dance School in 1987 at age four, was one of those young girls whose lives were changed by ballet. After dancing in college and then professionally with the Connecticut Ballet, Katie now teaches at the Dance School. Her daughter, Karena, made her Nutcracker debut last year. Jamal Edwards is another former company member who now teaches, dances and choreographs. Alum Justine Hale is also on the dance faculty.

This year, The Nutcracker will feature returning guest artists Anna Porter and Journy Wilkes-Davis performing the dream version of Marie and her Nutcracker prince. Sharing the role of the sugar plum fairy are Hilton Head Dance Theatre Company members Elizabeth Blackshire and Julia Bragg.

The Nutcracker will be performed at the Seahawk Cultural Center on the campus of Hilton Head Island High School for six shows only. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on November 13, 14, 20 and 21; and 2:30 p.m. on November 15 and 22.

Tickets are $28 for adults, $23 for seniors (60 and over) and students (13-18) and $17 for children 12 and under. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call (843) 842-3262.

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