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Holiday season kicks off with ‘The Nutcracker’ at Mercyhurst

Erie Contemporary Ballet Theatre’s weekend performances of the classic holiday ballet will offer a few unique surprises, too.

For nearly 125 years, “The Nutcracker” has been a sweet holiday treat for audiences of all ages.

But more recently, it’s become a tradition for the Erie Contemporary Ballet Theatre, too. And now, for a fourth year, the dance company will start the holiday season early with Thanksgiving weekend performances at Mercyhurst University’s Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center.

“We think it’s a great time to schedule our performance,” said Sarah Purvis, founder and artistic director of the nonprofit dance company. “Extended families are together for Thanksgiving, grandparents bring their grandchildren and it’s a transition to the Christmas season for many.”

The production will present the same familiar fantasy full of toy soldiers battling mice and dancing delights set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic music, as well as feature about 200 different costumes and more than 100 performers.

But fans of “The Nutcracker” might also notice a few changes that give the ballet a unique Erie flair.

Since the story of “The Nutcracker” takes place in Germany in the 1880s, Purvis contacted the Erie County Historical Society about prominent German family names in Erie County during that time. That research will actually be incorporated into this year’s show, with a few familiar names — such as Curtze, Griswold and Stuertznickel — added among the guests in the first act’s party scene.

The local production will also honor Erie Mayor Joe Schember by using his German surname as the family name for the ballet’s main character, Clara. Schember, who is scheduled to attend opening night with his family, will also introduce both performances.

And those aren’t the only changes in this large community effort. For this year’s production, volunteers created new costumes for the Spanish Dance performers as well as a new tutu for the Sugar Plum Fairy that Purvis considers “just stunning.”

A new 10-layer tutu takes about 120 hours to make and, with the decorated overlay for the tutu and the appliqué for the bodice, the total construction time is about 160 hours.

The show will also feature a few rentals from Grosh Backdrop and Drapery, and lighting designed by Pittsburgh’s Bob Steineck.

“Our props and sets are continuously renovated and refurbished,” wrote Purvis in a news release. “They add all the magic that is needed to bring ‘The Nutcracker’ to life.”

Also integral in bringing the show to life are the dozens of local performers — from young children to adults — that will take the stage this weekend. This year’s cast includes Ava Kloecker and Avanel Munger, who will share the role of young Clara; Aidan Egloff as the Nutcracker Prince; Emily Emanuel and Harlie Yahn, who will share the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy; Tucker Miller as Herr Drosselmeyer; Tom Wager and Mary Vicary as Mr. and Frau Schember, respectively; and Mercyhurst University dance juniors Roman Hall and Austin Declos will play the Snow King and Cavalier, respectively.

Yahn, 18, said she’s been looking forward to this holiday production practically all year.

“The Sugar Plum pas de deux is one of my favorite dances to watch and now it’s my favorite dance to perform,” she wrote via email.

But this weekend’s performances will also be a bittersweet experience for the college-bound Fairview High School senior.

“This will be my last ‘Nutcracker’ with ECBT,” Yahn explained. “I am sad to see this season come to an end, but I am so lucky that I’ve gotten to perform such a great ballet with these incredible people over the last four years. It’s always a pleasure to work and perform with the amazing people I have grown up with.”

And it’s always amazing to experience “The Nutcracker” in time for the holidays — whether you’re onstage or in the audience.

“It never gets old,” Purvis said. “Beginning with auditions in the fall, the kids are so excited. And when guests, especially children, come to the performance, with the beautiful scenery, it’s equally as exciting — and very magical.”