Nutcracker, Home for the Holidays Parade centerpieces for 'magical' weekend in Punxsutawney

PUNXSUTAWNEY — This weekend is set to be a magical one in Punxsutawney with an old tradition — the Home for the Holidays Parade — slated for Saturday evening, and while the magic can be found all over town, PRIDE's Nutcracker Weekend features what has become a holiday favorite in the area, with Van Dyke & Company and the Mahoning Valley Ballet's cast putting on another installment of the long-beloved performance.

Well-known for the vivid images of soldiers and dancers, The Nutcracker is one of the most popular performances in the tradition of ballet.
"There are many renditions of The Nutcracker," said Joan Van Dyke of Van Dyke & Company, artistic director and choreographer for the show. "As a dancer, I performed the traditional version of The Nutcracker based on the George Balanchine choreography. When I decided to produce and direct the show with my school, I wanted to carry on the tradition of this great ballet through my students."

Van Dyke said the show has been met with great support from the community, which is part of what has motivated her to continue to put on the show right here in town.

"The audience members have responded with overwhelming exuberance and look forward to seeing our interpretation," she said. "We know it is a success when we see return audience members, not only to this ballet, but also to all of Van Dyke & Company's ballets and productions."

The history of The Nutcracker runs deep, not only on an international level, but also on a smaller scale, right here in Punxsutawney.

"The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky," Van Dyke said. "The libretto is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.' It was given its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December of 1892.

"Van Dyke and Company first presented the production in 1988, four years after opening the school. I wanted to develop the ballet program to the level where the dancers in the school were technically ready to perform this ambitious production at a pre-professional level. Since 1989, VDC has presented twelve productions of the ballet in Punxsutawney."

This year's performance, which features a pair of
shows at Punxsutawney Area High School's auditorium tonight at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m., features a cast of more than 80 dancers from across the tri-county area — quite a large cast, but a challenge that Van Dyke said is well worth the work.

"It's a great joy and a challenge to work with dancers of various levels, ages and experiences," she said. "It forces me to find new ways of communicating the narrative of the ballet while highlighting the unique qualities of each dancer."

Despite the varying levels of experience, though, Van Dyke said she is very excited about working with this
year's cast.

"I am especially impressed with this year's cast of The Nutcracker," she said. "All of the dancers, from the ages of four and up, have learned their choreography and rehearsed and conducted themselves with great discipline and work ethic. I am eternally grateful to the professionals and amateurs and to the volunteers who have devoted their time and talents to making this production possible. It is a great mixture of a new generation of dancers and volunteers combined with veterans from the first production coming together to ensure that the tradition lives on."

Van Dyke also said that, as is the case with any large-scale production, there is a lot of work that goes on "behind the scenes" with her fellow crew members putting in time to make sure the show goes on.

"I am fortunate to have veterans to the show, such as Nancy Jones, Paul Jones, Alice Morris, Dustin Jewell, Bob Thompson, Debi and David Weller, the Keller family, the Depp-Hutchinson family, Lori Miller, Mike Momyer, Nino Gennaro, the Achille family, company parents and many others," she said. "Combined with the newer crew members, they truly create a magical experience. Special thanks to the parents, relatives, businesses and supporters of the ballet."

And while the production is an asset to the community, providing its members with a top-notch show, there is a great cause behind it as well, as the proceeds go to benefit the James Merritt Van Dyke Scholarship Award, on which Van Dyke elaborated.

"The Company, the Mahoning Valley Ballet, was formed to provide the more serious dancer with an opportunity to perform and choreograph throughout the dance season," she said. "We have performed 19 classical ballets and numerous shows since 1984. The Nutcracker is the major fundraiser for the scholarship fund, which was established in 1990 in order to provide financial assistance to deserving students furthering their dance education after high school."

Van Dyke said that since 1992, 17 scholarships have been awarded to many deserving students, including Nicole Osikowicz, Julie Parente, Emilie Cooper, Maria Stewart, Rebecca Inman, Shauntelle Gallaher, Alicia LeBlanc, Chelsey Dunkel, Melissa Grube, Cara Hoover, Ashley Newsome, Catherine Hayes, Rachel Switlick, Lauren McKee, Taylor Hop- kins, Samantha Osikowicz and Marisa Stockdale, many of whom "are still pursuing their love of the art through performance and teaching."

"This scholarship award is a tribute to Mr. Van Dyke," she continued, "for the years of love, encouragement and support he gave to his family and the arts."

The history and tradition of the ballet here in Punxsutawney, Van Dyke said, has assisted with building up leaders and community members equipped to benefit the town on a larger scale outside of the studio and off the stage.

"Like the transformation of the nutcracker to the handsome prince, ballet takes soft, shapeless little bodies and slowly molds them into strong, beautiful vessels guided by a clear and disciplined mind," she said. "I have witnessed that through the art of dance, students of all ages become both physically and mentally stronger as they grow. Many of our students become leaders academically because their discipline and work ethic carry over to all aspects of their lives.

"Dance is a life lesson that can't be replaced or forgotten. It is a lifelong skill in which everyone can enjoy participating. Dance is timeless and is one of the greatest gifts we give to ourselves."
Van Dyke also noted that the production has seen plenty of support from the community.

"I would like to express my appreciation for all of the community members and businesses who have supported the arts," she said. "I'd also like to thank Shirley Sharp, Katie Laska and the committee members of PRIDE for recognizing the value of the arts in our community."

And while The Nutcracker is the namesake for a weekend-long celebration here in town, it's far from the only thing going on this weekend.

Nutcracker Weekend here in Punxsutawney kicks off this morning with a plethora of events and sales taking place in the businesses throughout the downtown area.

Today, which is often known as Black Friday, is also Open House & Holiday Preview Day for participating downtown businesses.

PRIDE will be kicking off its Punxsutawney Season of Holidays with what it calls “a great time to visit Punxsutawney, shop the downtown stores and participate in Mistletoe Madness.”

Saturday is the day that many local folks look forward to in town, though, with Mistletoe Madness accompanying the matinee performance of The Nutcracker, and the Home for the Holidays Parade coming as the icing on the cake at 6 p.m.

The point of the weekend is to invite folks into the downtown businesses, especially after the “hustle and bustle” of Black Friday, to check out the many offerings the businesses in the downtown area can provide.

This year’s parade, in its 22nd year, is being sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Eagles No. 1231 and will be held Saturday. The parade will form and kickoff from the Punxy Plaza area, and will conclude by bringing Santa into town to wrap up the parade.

Adding a bit more magic to the evening, the Walston Club is also sponsoring a fireworks show after the parade.

Last year, there was no fireworks show because a sponsor didn’t surface, but the Walston Club’s generosity will make sure the Christmas season comes in with a bang. The show “promises to be spectacular,” the Chamber of Commerce said, and will be viewable from Barclay Square and the downtown area.

After the parade, another holiday tradition — one that's been going on since 2006 — will take place in the Punxsutawney Rotary Club's traditional lighting of the Circle of Trees in Barclay Square.

The event immediately follows the parade at the bandstand in Barclay Square. The trees went up this week, but the traditional lighting is seen as a symbolic representation of the beginning of the Christmas season.

The tradition started when members of the Rotary Club, after putting up the large tree on the bandstand, thought it would be a good idea to expand beyond it to the circle of trees.

Each tree represents a non-profit group, and along with the Rotary's Radio Auction and the Multi-Phasic Blood Testing, the Circle of Trees is one of the main events the Rotary puts on each year as benefits to the community.

And last but not least, everyone is invited to take part in the holiday-themed, family-friendly after party, hosted by the Punxsutawney Eagles, directly across from Barclay Square.

The party will take place in the first-floor banquet room, and Santa will be available for the children. Hot drinks will be available, and the parade winners will also be announced.

From The Nutcracker to the post-parade fireworks to seeing Santa at the after party, the next few days will see no shortage of magic in the town of Punxsutawney, and the Chamber of Commerce, PRIDE and so many other involved organizations invite everyone out to be a part of the magic.