‘Nutcracker’ producers embrace diverse cast

This year marks Piedmont Dance Theatre’s 12th year performing one of the world’s most beloved ballets: Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Thousands of people will experience this year’s performances, which will feature the troupe’s most diverse cast yet, said Rebecca Massey-Wiley, founder of the Kannapolis-based troupe, who helped cast an African-American in the lead role of Clara.

The shows also will feature a dancer from the South American nation of Colombia and another performer originally from Brazil.

The show is also performed for more than 5,500 students each year, Wiley said.

“It is important for future generations to be able to identify with someone they see on stage, and that is something we’re able to offer,” she said.

As the artistic director, Wiley said she cast the roles based on each performer’s work ethic and their technical and artistic mastery of the role.

“This really encourages our young dancers to put their best foot forward and affords each performer a level playing field,” Wiley said.

The role of Clara will be performed by Kayla Goldsberry, 14, of Huntersville. This is her third year with PDT. Last year she was the understudy for the role.

Kayla started ballet, tap and jazz lessons when she was 4. Since then, she’s attended two summer dance intensives in New York City, one with the American Ballet Theatre and the School of American Ballet.

“It is nice to be the first African-American Clara at my studio, but knowing my teachers and friends are proud of me for improving and working hard is what really excites me,” Kayla said.

“I am also excited to follow in the footsteps of other famous black Claras, like Misty Copeland in New York City and Ayisha McMillan right here in Charlotte.”

Gérson Lopes, 37, lives in Charlotte but is originally from Brazil. The music teacher for the Piedmont School of Music and Dance quickly jumped at the chance to perform in “The Nutcracker,” even if it meant dressing in drag.

Lopes will make a lifelong dream come true when he plays the larger-than-life role of Mother Ginger.

“He has brought new life to the rehearsal process, because he is seeing the entire process for the first time,” Wiley said. “The young cast members derive energy from his enthusiasm and willingness to learn something completely new.

“Watching an adult take risks, make mistakes and move forward with a wonderful sense of humor has provided everyone with a fresh and more innocent perspective of the entire process.”

Rafael Perez, 25, a native of Colombia, often has to rely on hand gestures to overcome the language barrier, Wiley said. Perez was a character dancer in his native country and is living in Cabarrus County on a student visa.

“While he has character dance skills, he has had to work very hard to improve his ballet skills,” Wiley said. “Like (Lopes), the young performers see him attending class and rehearsal each week and giving 100 percent. They are watching someone take risks and applaud him for his successes.”

More than 90 performers will take the stage during upcoming performances in Kannapolis and Salisbury. Those familiar with the show will see a new tree that grows on stage and sparkles with the help of 800 light bulbs. There will be several new costumes and updated choreography for more than half of the second act.

Lead dancer Catherine Livingston, 16, of Davidson is a sophomore at Cannon School in Concord. She has been dancing for 13 years and has trained with the Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. This is her fifth year with PDT and her fourth performing in “The Nutcracker.”

Although the audience does not get to see the effort of volunteers, Livingston said, the show would not happen without the hours they put in to create backdrops, costumes and props.

“I am impressed to see that the level of the choreography in many dances has improved from the previous year,” she said. “The best part about changing choreography is the ability to remove a component that didn’t work as well as planned and change it to something that better fits the dancers and provides a more interesting experience for the audience.

“This helps the audience connect to the characters and the overall story of the show.”

Lopes agreed the production involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work. The audience can easily be fooled, he said, by how effortless the dancers make everything look.

“The whole show is a beautiful living force that pulls together so many talented people,” he said.

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