Pam Farry-Haden's goal with the South Tulsa Children's Ballet (STCB) is simple: "To provide an educational performance opportunity for children for free."
What that means for the kids involved -- in this year's STCB production of The Nutcracker that's 325 of them, ages 4 to 19 -- is a chance to have a role in a classic ballet, to learn about being in an ensemble and putting on a show, and to challenge themselves by performing on stage for the Tulsa community, without paying anything to be part of it.
What it means for Farry-Haden, who founded and directs the production, is a whole lot of hard work, involving kids, parents, production details, choreography, and...irrigation tubing?
"Yes, we have a tree onstage," she said, "made of irrigation tubing and garland. It's 16 feet across at the bottom and 25 feet tall. And it grows."
The growing Christmas tree is just one of the traditional elements STCB makes a point of incorporating into its Nutcracker, presented at the TCC VanTrease PACE this weekend. Many of them -- the marionette box, the mouse on cheese, Mother Ginger with her huge hoop skirt -- are bits that Tulsa Ballet (TB) jettisoned when it reconceptualized its version of the ballet eight years ago.
TB's new Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director Marcello Angelini, is a glamorous production that takes place in 1920s Paris and hews closely to the original story by E. T. A. Hoffman. While still decidedly about enchantment and holiday cheer, it has a more sophisticated, grown-up feeling and fewer parts for young children.
The changes saddened some in the community, but "instead of grumbling, I decided to do something," Farry-Haden said. "I like being happy more than complaining. So I just thought I'd put together a production in my studio (The Dance Pointe), or maybe rent a smaller theater. But my CPA at the time, Duane Summers, said, 'Why don't you do a 501c3 and open it up to everyone?'
STCB was founded as a non-profit organization with a board of directors. It operates on a shoestring budget, with most costumes and sets created by parent volunteers. "We pretty much live on ticket sales," Farry-Haden said. An auction of hand-painted pointe shoes and a small amount of advertising contribute to the funding for the show each year.
"I hope one day we run into the right person who can help us get some grants, but at this point I want to focus on making sure the kids are getting an educational experience that will make them a different kind of dancer when they leave South Tulsa Children's Ballet."
The STCB Nutcracker is based on the traditional 19th-century choreography, with adaptations made each year based on the strengths of the dancers. To participate, children must be enrolled in a dance or gymnastics program. There's a completely different cast for each show, because every child who auditions gets a part -- a policy Farry-Haden said comes in part from her own experience as a young dancer.
"I performed as a soldier in Tulsa Ballet's old production, but was always too tall to do any other parts," she said. "When I went on to major in dance at OU, I was very grateful for all the years I got to help backstage, but I think it would have been a huge benefit for me to experience other levels of the show."
Farry-Haden noted that because STCB accepts everyone who auditions -- including some children with disabilities -- some have labeled the STCB Nutcracker a "rinky-dink" production. She said they're missing the point.
"If some kids were required to take the number of hours of dance classes it takes to perform as well as the strongest dancers in the ballet, they would never experience dance at all. I want every single one of these kids, from all different levels, to experience being part of a classical ballet production.
"This gives them an opportunity to open their minds. Some of them may never become professional ballet dancers, but they will buy a ticket one of these days. They will realize how important the arts are."
It's not only a great experience for the kids on the stage, she said, but also for the ones in the audience. "The Nutcracker isn't about princesses or cartoon characters," Farry-Haden continued. "It's a work of art that develops higher-level thinking, which will enable them to go outside the box when they become adults."
The STCB Nutcracker runs about an hour and 45 minutes, and because it is a children's ballet, families are welcome to return to their seats during the show if they need to take a break or use the restroom.
About half of the audience is made up of friends and family of the dancers. The other half comes, Farry-Haden said, because they prefer the traditional version or have small children whom they're nervous about bringing to the more formal PAC downtown.
"For some people, it's, 'I think there's some children's Nutcracker that I think my kid can sit through,' Farry-Haden laughed. "But then I've had people write me letters saying they came to see the next door neighbor's kid perform and walked out of the theater in amazement."
"As long as I can touch these kids with a positive experience," Farry-Haden said, "that's what it's all about."
The STCB Nutcracker will be performed at 2pm and 7pm on Saturday, Dec. 3, and 2pm on Sunday, Dec. 4, at the TCC VanTrease PACE. Tickets are $10 and $15 and are available by calling 918-595-7777. For more information, visit southtulsachildrensballet.org.
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