Since 1973, Ballet Wichita has brought life to dancing snowflakes and fierce fighting mice, magic toys and waltzing flowers in its production of “The Nutcracker.” In 1975 an 11-year-old Marie Hand made her debut as a soldier, the first of many appearances in the ballet that’s a tradition for audiences and a rite of passage for dancers. A few years later she was dancing in Waltz of the Flowers and was joined in the production by her little sister, Laurie.
“That was fun,” Hand says. “I was in high school, and I had this sister who was the super-cute bunny wielding a carrot-sword in the fight scene. She got applause for her high-energy bunny performance.”
Over the decades Hand grew up, went to medical school and had seven children, five of whom have also taken the stage in the cast of the “The Nutcracker” over the years. Her three oldest daughters grew up performing in the ballet and have moved on to college and marriage. This year as you watch the scrappy mice battling, one of them will be 8-year-old Bridgette, the youngest. Bernadette, 15, will be a Chinese dancer and one of the horses on pointe, ushering Clara and her Prince into the snowy forest.
Although artistic director Jill Landrith tried to twist the arms of Hand’s two sons growing up, they refused to don the tights. “They were more into football, wrestling and rugby,” Hand says. “I remember when they’re little, they actually like ‘The Nutcracker.’ The orchestra is lovely — all of them, even the boys, are accustomed to classical music. It’s only when they hit about fifth grade that it’s no longer cool.”
Hand also has fond memories of her father, Charles Eck, supporting his daughters and granddaughters. “He was this farmer. … For a farm boy from western Sedgwick County, he attended more ‘Nutcrackers’ than any man in town.” Eck passed away in 2003, but his wife, Dee — who enrolled young Marie in her first ballet class — still attends every year.
“She’s the one that got us into rehearsals and recorded the ballets for many years,” Hand says. “I have great memories of every year; I just love it.” This year Hand, who is now an ER doctor at the VA, is reprising an earlier role as a party mom, after much insisting from Bridgette.
What a year for a mother and her two daughters to appear in ‘The Nutcracker.’ This fall Ballet Wichita was recognized as 2015 Wichita Arts Organization of the Year by the Arts Council, largely on the strength of its outreach program to school children through its schedule of Nutcracker matinees. The organization is also the only ballet company to go on tour, this year transporting almost 100 cast members to Junction City for a Nutcracker performance on Sunday, Dec. 6.
Artistic director Landrith is carrying the baton of the Sugar Plum Fairy proudly into the future and is already in the thick of rehearsals for her 17th year in a row, directing 141 cast members from 21 area cities and brainstorming tweaks to some of the choreography and costumes.
“I find my inspiration for movement amongst my dancers,” she says. For the Chinese variation she’s researching “traditional Chinese cultural dances, from the various regions, and am very inspired by the movement, the costumes and the rhythms.
“I always swear I’m going to keep it the same, but my famous words at rehearsals are, ‘Hey! How about if we…’ so it always changes. That’s how you keep it fresh.”
Ballet Wichita's 'The Nutcracker'
Featuring the Ballet Wichita Orchestra
Sunday, Dec. 6
Junction City, C.L. Hoover Opera House
Thursday and Friday, Dec. 10-11
Century II Concert Hall
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13
Century II Concert Hall