Dayton Ballet’s annual holiday treat

Photo: The Nutcracker ensamble dances as snowflakes in the pine forrest

By Arnecia Petterson
Images by Scott Kimmins


When The Nutcracker ballet had its 1892 premier in St. Petersburg, Russia, critics viewed it unfavorably for its mass appeal and circus-like atmosphere. It was categorized “ballet-féerie,” a spectacle created to appeal to the populace and undermine ballet’s aristocratic heritage. Since the 20th century, those very traits have provided The Nutcracker with iconic status, as much as ballets are considered. The staged dance version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s children’s story, of the same name, is comfortably situated amidst a holiday landscape of fantasies about snowmen, reindeer, elves, and present-bearing, bearded men. Its profile is populated with growing Christmas trees and sword-wielding battles between life-sized mice and a nutcracker protector. The colors are brilliant and the cast is larger than most ballets. Dayton has many versions, but none as big and bold as the Dayton Ballet’s.

In a season of holiday mainstays, the Dayton Ballet presents ten performances of The Nutcracker Friday Dec 15 through Saturday Dec 23, in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center. It is the fifth year of the company’s current version choreographed by artistic director Karen Russo Burke with costumes by Lowell Mathwich, sets by Ray Zupp, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) lush score played live by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Neal Gittleman.

Those 1892 critics were foreseers of the ballet’s mass appeal. It is a vivid whirlwind of swirling desserts reminiscent of varied countries in the Land of Sweets. Clara, the young girl whose fantasy on which the ballet is centered, travels there to enjoy an evening with her nutcracker hosted by the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier. Like most versions, the Dayton Ballet’s The Nutcracker is known for the fantasy that comprises its second act, yet for a few minutes toward the end, the cavalier and sugar plum fairy sum up the performance as a classical undertaking amidst the merrymaking. This year, the two dancers who are cast as the cavalier, Paul Gilliam and Daniel Rodriguez, bring stature and strength to realize the role’s understated depth.

Opposites Attract?

Paul Gilliam and Daniel Rodriguez entered the world of ballet from different parts of the country and have arrived at the Dayton Ballet as a longstanding and first year dancer, respectively. Gilliam, in the course of his twelve seasons, is well-known to audiences for his roles in Dracula and Peter Pan. He recalls seeing The Nutcracker as a young teenager on a field trip to a Dallas/Ft. Worth ballet performance. It was a new experience to him while growing up in rural Tishomingo, OK where ballets, especially ballet spectacles, were rare. “I thought the party scene was kind of funny, but I didn’t understand why they were in the Land of Sweets,” he remembers.

By contrast, Rodriguez is in his first season with the company. He grew up in New York City within a brief train ride of some of the country’s most famous productions of The Nutcracker but he has yet to sit in a theater and watch a version in his hometown. He began dancing through the not-for-profit National Dance Institute founded by Jacques D’Amboise. As a student at New York’s Ballet Academy East, he was cast in its production of The Nutcracker. From that introduction, he accepted the ballet as part of a dancer’s annual responsibility. Both Gilliam and Rodriguez agree that the ballet’s perennial nature makes it is as much of a tradition for dancers as for audiences. Its repetition can breed familiarity, but it also allows a professional approach to evolve as the season continually comes around.

Those seasons appeared in different phases developmentally for each dancer. Gilliam began dancing The Nutcracker in college and Rodriguez as a young boy, giving each at least a decade of hearing the same music and being cast in various roles and versions depending on the choreographer. Over the years, each has put the ballet in a professional perspective. “The Nutcracker is so important to people,” Rodriguez recognizes. “When people discover that I’m a dancer, they mention The Nutcracker .We have to keep it alive and fresh, because for a lot of people this is a family tradition. We have to make sure the magic is there.” Gilliam sees it as another example of the repetition that builds expertise and makes the balletic art form so highly revered. “Yes, you hear the music and do the same steps a million times, but how many times have I done a plié or tendu,” he explains. “It comes to how special the ballet is for the people who are there, not necessarily about how I feel.”

In terms of traditions, ballet communities are built on a premise of transferring—or passing down—roles, from dancer to dancer, body to body. Even with the increased use of video, choreography is taught with the oversight of an expert. For the role of the cavalier, Gilliam is the seasoned professional while Rodriguez is learning a new role after being in the company for less than a year. “He helps me when I’m having trouble with something and need someone to look at how I’m going about it. He knows what he’s doing,” Rodriguez explains. According to Gilliam, his willingness to teach, lead, and encourage younger dancers who are new to a role is part of how dances acquire classic status and become traditional fare for generations. “I was trained with the responsibility to pass it on and help each other. Share. Why hold anything back from others? We spend time after class and in our down time pushing each other just because we need it,” he adds. The mutual feedback is providing depth to the role of the cavalier. His appearance in the Land of Sweets can be overlooked for the flashier dances given by the sweets that come to life. By collaborating on their preparation for the role, the two dancers have negotiated a royal presence for the cavalier and provided him princely measure.

Who Is Cavalier?

When Paul Gilliam recalls his younger self’s confusion over how Clara and the nutcracker ended up in the Land of Sweets, he simultaneously points out their soft presence in the narrative save the Grand Pas de Deux toward the end of the ballet. Rodriguez concurs with Gilliam’s remembrance.

“The funny thing about sugar plum and cavalier is they don’t have a big story line. There are no established roles,” Rodriguez says. “There never have been. It’s just a cavalier and his sugar plum. We’re royalty.” To his assessment Gilliam adds, “They’re welcoming hosts. It’s grand. A place of magic; not your normal life. They control all of that.”

Both dancers, in the same way that they came to ballet differently, bring a range of attributes to the role of cavalier. The male ballet dancer has to be elegant and supportive when he dances with a ballerina—the princely aesthetic of classical ballet. Rodriguez understands that his height and long limbs are an asset in such roles, but he admits to the work he undertakes in order to take advantage of his well-suited physicality. “From a young age, I’ve had to work on moving bigger. It’s easy to take being big for granted and assuming everything I do is big. But I have to pull up and make sure everything is in the right place. Otherwise, I have good pieces but the picture is not right,” he says.

The picture of the cavalier has to look the same no matter who dances the role. The challenge for Gilliam is embodying a princely aura on a frame that exudes strength and has a well-defined musculature. He is better suited for roles that require big jumps, turns, bravura. “My stretch is creating the image that I am grand and long. A dancer with my body type usually does not do roles like cavalier,” Gilliam says. In spite of the different body types, the men agree that cavalier is necessary as the person who connects with the sugar plum fairy. “They need each other. He showcases her in her best light and helps her be beautiful. It’s a team dynamic,” Rodriguez says.

As a couple, the cavalier and sugar plum fairy end the ballet with the Grand Pas de Deux, a tender duet danced to languishing strings that serves as a respite from the liveliness beforehand. With all the hoopla of the second act, it ends up being a classical anomaly ascribed to them at the end of Clara’s (and the audience’s) magical journey. One that continues to make children smile and remember their first experience at the ballet—usually The Nutcracker.

Performances of The Nutcracker are on Friday, Dec 15 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, Dec 16  at 2:30 and 7:30 pm; Sunday, Dec 17 at 2:30 pm; Tuesday, Dec 19 at 7:30 pm; Wednesday, Dec 20 at 4:30 pm; Thursday, Dec 21 at 4:30 pm; Friday, Dec 22 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm; and Saturday, Dec 23 at 2:30 pm in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center.

Tickets for The Nutcracker are $17 to $77 and are available at Ticket Center Stage 888.228.3630 or online at Senior, teacher, and military discounts are available at the box office. For more information or to order subscriptions, including flexible subscription types that include performances by Dayton Philharmonic, Dayton Opera, and Dayton Ballet, visit 

Lauren Aiken

Trudie Arling

Ellie Arnett

Lucy Arnold

Andi Ashby

Isabella Ataman

Zoe Barger

Emmaline Barrentine

Grace Bauer

Marina Bell

Aimee Besl

Ally Blatter

Jacqueline Bouchard

Chelsea Brecht

Cailyn Buehler

Carissa Buehler

Isabel Byrd

Isabella Cantrell

Scarlett Cantrell

Sarah Connell

Alexandra Corder

Hannah Coty

Matthew Coty

Bethany Crank

Aliya Creager

Arica Croone

Adele Davis

Molly Dunn

Maggie Duvic

Eliana Egbert

Sofia Espedal

Layla Espy

Maya Fairchild

Jamie Gabrielson

Megan Gabrielson

Ellen Greene

Alexander Gross

Jadden Hahn

Jenin Halabi

Lenneia Hale

Alivia Hardman

Ivy Henne

Lauren Hill

Elliana Hurst

Shannon Hyde

Mollie Juniewicz

Parker Karban

RJay Karban

Ayla Kempf

Sophia Krapf

Yetta Krummel-Adkins

Shoshana Krummel-Adkins

Fisher Lourens

Isabella Lombardo

Deirdre Lynch

Maeve Lynch

Lila Malcolm

Madelyn Manning

Annabelle May

Nesta May

Hannah McGuffey

Ava McKinney

Emma Miller

Genevieve Miller

Ella Moler

Mia Nazarenus

Lilly Neumeister

Annabelle Neumeister

Lani O’Shaughnessy

David Padrichelli

Sarah Press

Sara Rhoades

Elizabeth Roelle

Caroline Roelle

Athena Rosengarten

Callie Rozelle

Ellie Rozier

Emma Rubin

Nora Sableski

Lila Sauer

Ruthie Sauer

Ellie Savage

Mary Schade

Heidi Schleidt

Charlotte Schnell

Anastasia Shivers

Katelyn Sizer

Lola Smith

Mira Soin

Annie Steckel

McKenna Steneman

Ella Strehle

Karson Stubbs-Hartlage

Claire Takizawa

Peyton Taylor

Kara Thomas

Jordan Thornburg

Elana Twarek

Allison Unger

Bailee Waltersheide

Matthew Warren

Caitlyn Wehner

Lorelai Wells

Alexandra West

Emma Whaley

Kayla Williams

Caroline Woessner

Lydia Woeste

Janie Woods


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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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