Forty years ago, Ron Colton staged The Nutcracker in Augusta for the first time.
In the decades since, the annual ballet has become more than a holiday classic.
“It’s an Augusta tradition,” he said.
This year, more than 85 cast members take the stage for five performances over three days.
“This year is so special,” said Zanne Colton, Ron’s wife who is the artistic director of Dance Augusta, which stages this year’s production.
The Coltons have directed The Nutcracker under the banner of Dance Augusta since 2006.
The duo previously served on the artistic staff of the Augusta Ballet, where Ron Colton first brought The Nutcracker to Augusta in 1971.
Ron Colton, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, joined George Balanchine’s company in 1953, the year the choreographer unveiled his own spin on the story and popularized the tale for many Americans.
The show, in some ways, is very different from the one first produced in Augusta 40 years ago.
Friend and colleague Robert Barnett, then the artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet, provided soloists, sets and costumes for the first several years of The Nutcracker in Augusta.
“I decided if we were going to do a Nutcracker, we were going to do a good one,” Ron Colton said. “As the years went on, we’d take another part of it over.”
Five years later, local dancers were filling the principal roles.
Over the years, the costumes and sets have also been refreshed, Zanne Colton said.
“The look has been updated, but what I love is that the heart of the story, the magic of it, is there as always,” she said.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Coltons’ production, a reception will be held on opening night for cast members who have participated in The Nutcracker over the years.
“Even today, I run into them in the grocery store and on the street,” Ron Colton said.
There’s a camaraderie that binds the cast together, said Jackie McKinney, one of several parents who will appear in the show along with their children.
“It’s the neatest thing, watching two generations come together,” she said.
McKinney grew up dancing in The Nutcracker. She estimates that she’s danced in the production at least 17 times since her debut in 1993.
For the first time this year, her daughter, Emma, 8, dances in The Nutcracker as a toy soldier.
“I get to watch her have the joy and excitement I’ve had all these years,” she said. “It’s really neat as a mom.”
The ballet takes place in the dream world of a little girl named Clara, who is given a nutcracker for Christmas by her godfather. She imagines a Mouse King and a nutcracker prince who battle against each other. The victorious prince takes her to lands of snow and sweets before Clara awakens on Christmas morning.
“At Christmas, people look for hope and joy,” McKinney said. “I think The Nutcracker lets you look through a child’s eyes again, even if just for a few hours.”
If they’re lucky, this production of The Nutcracker will be around for many more generations and another 40 years, Zanne Colton said.