Ballet gets crackin’

Even though David Herriott has lost count of the number of “The Nutcracker” performances he’s been in or choreographed or directed, he still says this is the most exciting time of the year. The artistic and executive director of the Columbus Ballet is not only the choreographer/ director, he stars as the mysterious Drosselmeyer this weekend.

After leading the Columbus Ballet for four years, Herriott says he’s seeing his dancers “really starting to capture the real essence of the movement and story of ‘The Nutcracker.’ They are looking good.”

Maria Hirsch, who restarted the Columbus Ballet in 1996 after it was dormant for about five years, left to teach in the Muscogee County School District in 2002. She has returned to teach on a limited basis.

“It’s been good to have her here,” Herriott said. “She’s been putting in some good time with the kids and taking over some of the rehearsals.”

Hirsch exclaimed at a recent rehearsal that some of her “babies” are now driving, referring to former students who are now grown.

For the third year, “The Nutcracker” will be accompanied by the Columbus Ballet Orchestra led by Columbus State University cello professor André Gaskins.

“It makes a tremendous difference” to dance to live music, Herriott said. “It’s that extra energy and excitement and it’s educational for the students to see the musicians. It’s a complete artistic experience.”

The St. Luke United Methodist Church’s children’s choir will also appear in “the Nutcracker” singing in several of the scenes.

“All of that sound makes it that much more exciting,” Herriott said.

The Mother Ginger scene has been revamped this year, with a new costume for Mother Ginger.A new guest artist

Armando Luna, a former principal dancer with the Atlanta Ballet who teaches in the Atlanta Ballet’s academy, will dance the role of the Cavalier, partnering with Kelsey Hirsch (Maria Hirsch’s daughter) as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Luna, 46, has been doing “The Nutcracker” since 1980 when he was taking lessons in Houston, where he was born and grew up. He went to Texas A&M. He later danced with the Texas Ballet, Ballet Austin and Ballet Met. Luna has been affiliated with the Atlanta Ballet since 1995, which was the first year that artistic director John McFall came to Atlanta. “It’s such a beautiful dance,” Luna said of “The Nutcracker.” “It’s so vibrant.” His first “Nutcracker” partner in Atlanta, Julianne Kepley, is now with the San Francisco Ballet. He calls that time “special” because of Kepley. “The audiences loved her,” he said. Luna has high praise for his new partner. “I’m having a great time dancing with Kelsey.” Luna also praises Herriott’s choreography, likening it to McFall’s. Years ago, Luna thought about the time that he would have to quit dancing. The father of three decided that his family was so important that when a teaching position came open, he took it.

“I love it,” he said. “It gives me the flexibility to guest (as a dancer) and choreograph or teach elsewhere. I’m lucky. I have the best job in the whole building.”

He loves working with students and he loves that he can still do character roles on stage.

“I’m just really happy to be here.”Sugar Plum Fairy

Kelsey Hirsch, 15, is dancing the pivotal role of Sugar Plum Fairy this year in all the performances. She’s a little worried because the difficulty of the role is physically draining. Luna explained the Sugar Plum Fairy dances a lot longer than the Cavalier. “After the long pas de deux, the guy’s variation is 50 seconds,” he said. “The woman’s goes on and on and takes a lot of stamina.” Luna laughs when he says Kelsey could be his daughter. His oldest son is 13. “But we have a good chemistry together,” he said. “She’s a hard worker and very attentive. She’s very thorough. I’m very impressed.” Kelsey said Luna has helped her a lot, and joked that “I haven’t hit him yet.”