A previous production of “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium during the finale. Courtesy of Maine State Ballet

Maine State Ballet’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” will return to Merrill Auditorium in Portland this weekend after taking a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The performances, which run this weekend and next, feature over 200 dancers from across Maine.

Lucy Nelson, 17, of Harpswell said that she has been dancing since the second grade, and this year will be her 10th performance in the Nutcracker. Nelson said that getting back into the studio in preparation for the Nutcracker has been motivating, particularly after taking online dance classes due to the pandemic.

“I feel like growing up with ballet you learn so much more than just dance,” said Nelson. “You learn discipline and respect and hard work and being determined and honestly like how to take criticism, but also how to dream big and have those aspirations.”

Instead of dancing for a live audience last year, Maine State Ballet recorded the Nutcracker performance and distributed the film due to the virus. Merrill Auditorium holds roughly 1,900 people.

“The people are a really, really big part of why I love dancing at Maine State Ballet so much,” said 17-year-old Brunswick resident and ballet dancer Sally Minton. “I’ve met so many people who are now some of my best friends, and we never would have met without dance.”

Minton, who started dancing when she was 3, will also be performing in her 10th Nutcracker production this year.

A previous production of “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium during the battle scene. Courtesy of Maine State Ballet

The ballet is split into two acts and follows the traditional story of Clara, the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The production will not include a live orchestra this year, but instead use a soundtrack recording due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. Performers in “The Nutcracker” do not sing or speak, but instead communicate with the audience through dance and facial expressions.

“Through the expression of dance and all the songs it’s a way of speaking — but not verbally,” said 11-year-old Joy Stewart of Topsham. Stewart has been dancing since age three and will be on her seventh performance of “The Nutcracker” this year.

“I think it’s become a tradition, like a holiday tradition for everyone just to come see the amazing production of ‘The Nutcracker’ at the Merrill,” said Stewart.

According to Maine State Ballet Assistant Director Glenn Davis, the production required extensive planning over the last two years due to the pandemic.

“We want people to step away and feel something,” said Davis. “With live performing, it’s like a flame. You light a candle, and the candle is there for dinner, and then when dinner is over the candle is out and it’s gone, and that show is gone, and the next show is a new fresh expression in time.”

Dancers Trevor Seymour and Emma Davis in “The Nutcracker.” Courtesy of Maine State Ballet

Auditions for the production were held in early September, and rehearsals began later that month. Merrill Auditorium requires masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend the event. This weekend shows are scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Next weekend shows will run on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets range from about $20 to $70.

Maine State Ballet is a professional dance company based in Falmouth. For more information, visit mainestateballet.org

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