Dancing through three decades: celebrating 30 years of “The Nutcracker” at TJC


Hannah Horton


For the past 30 years, TJC has presented the classic ballet “The Nutcracker” annually. As an anniversary celebration, this year’s performance will take place at the UT Tyler Cowan Center with accompaniment by the East Texas Symphony Orchestra. Thanks to funding from Jim and Margaret Perkins, it will also feature two special guest performers from the Pennsylvania Ballet: Nayara Lopes as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Sterling Baca as the Cavalier.

The performance is directed by TJC Academy of Dance Director Carolyn Hanna. Choreographers for this year’s production are Hanna; Shurrell Wiebe, Pre-Professional Program Director and professor; and Thereza Bryce-Cotes TJC Ballet Mistress and adjunct professor.

“As a dancer myself, it is super exciting to see the audition and then the finished product,” said Wiebe. “All of the work and the dedication and the discipline that goes into this can create a show that runs flawlessly.”

Wiebe said that dancers in the Academy of Dance’s pre-professional program are a major part of the performance. “These dancers spend tireless hours with their art,” she said. “We have students who drive hours and hours every day just to be a part of this program here at TJC.”

One dancer in the Pre-Professional Program is thirteen-year-old Jessica Zavala, who will be performing in “The Nutcracker” as a soldier, a Russian dancer and a garland girl.

“I really love dancing,” said Zavala, “and being able to be in a big production is really special.”

This year’s cast also includes seven alumni of the pre-professional program. “They’re all dancing in the professional world now … and they’re coming back to dance for us. They’re giving back to the community that they were raised in,” Wiebe said.

“It’s a very long process,” explained Wiebe. “We started auditions in early September, and it’s open to the community. So, we have ages six all the way up to seventy and past seventy. We have community members who have been doing this the entire time.”

Two of those community members are Tom and Gwen Jones. Gwen was taking ballet lessons at TJC when auditions for the school’s first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ began.

“I was [cast as] a mother in the party scene and recruited my husband,” she stated.

“She said ‘Hey, we need men in the party scene, you can do it,” explained Tom. “I said, ‘But I don’t dance,’ and she said, ‘Doesn’t matter, you’re in it’ … So, that’s how I got in it. Gwen was the dancer in the family.”

The next year, Tom was cast as Drosselmeyer, a role he has continued to play every year since.

“I’ve lived the part and improved the part, and I love the part,” said Tom. “I just keep coming back, and if they cast me, they do. They haven’t not cast me yet. It’s been a really amazing project.”

The Joneses have also designed and built several props for the show in the past, including the Christmas tree and Mother Ginger’s dress.

This year will also debut several new props and costumes.

“On a year like this year, when we’re performing with the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, it is a very big deal,” said Wiebe. “That’s when we tend to replenish our costumes. We will order new ones, we’ll have new things made, we have new sets that are made. We order all of our backdrops because it is bigger. Here at our stage, our standard backdrops and things that we use each year fit our stage. Cowan is so much larger that we have so many other things that we need to provide.”

Wiebe stressed that the department would not be able to afford these improvements without financial support from donors and fundraising efforts from auxillary board members.

“The costumes are beautiful. Many of them are handmade. We even brought some of our Arabian costumes that are handmade back from Morocco. So, we have a variety of costumes this year that are magnificent,” said Wiebe.

“When you first start, it looks like there’s no way we’re going to be able to put this onstage,” added Bryce-Cotes. “And then you see the end, and it’s like a miracle that it’s all come together. It’s going to be a really great show.”

“Their hearts and souls are in this program,” said Wiebe. “It’s so evident when you see them in this program and you see the joy, the elation, the excitement and the discipline the moment they get out on that stage. They just transition into their characters. It’s phenomenal, really.”

Performances of “The Nutcracker” will take place at the Cowan Center at two o’clock p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 1.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Wiebe.


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