As is the case for most professional dancers, “The Nutcracker” was the first ballet Courtney Lyon laid her eyes on.
According to her mother, Lyon looked up at the stage in awe and later announced her dream to be up there dancing. Back then, she wanted to be one of the rats. They were “the most dramatic.”
“You can look up there and get an idea of what ballet is,” she said. “You can say, ‘I want to do that one day.’”
Lyon has danced in “The Nutcracker” plenty of times since as a member of Ballet Quad-Cities. In her role of artistic director, she has also choreographed the holiday-themed show each season since 2009.
“The Nutcracker” is by far the company’s longest-running tradition.
Ballet Quad-Cities has performed “The Nutcracker” every year since the company started in 1996. It is also, by far, the company’s biggest production and was coined in promotions as the “most iconic ballet of all time” ahead of the group’s performances in Cedar Rapids last weekend.
It includes a cast of over 40 dancers — 11 of which are company dancers and the rest are students ages 7 to 18 — and hundreds of costumes and props. Plus, the dancers perform with live music by Orchestra Iowa.
This weekend, Ballet Quad-Cities will present “The Nutcracker” three times at the Adler Theatre, and if tradition continues, they will together draw the company’s largest audience of the season.
Because of that, Lyon doesn’t often make big changes to her choreography.
Four years ago, she overhauled the entire production except for one section: the iconic “Waltz of the Flowers,” a seven-minute scene near the end of the second act of the 1892 score composed by Tchaikovsky.
This year, however, the ballet’s longest and most “intense” scene got a major update.
“It was like, OK, time for a new one,” Lyon said. “Just because you want to challenge yourself and want to make it better.”
In the “Waltz,” Lyon cast a lead dancer — Marie Buser — as a butterfly and a core of other female dancers as a flower garden moving around her.
“It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time,” she said. “This year, I said, ‘I’m ready to do it.”
It’s important to change parts of the choreography, Lyon said, in part because she has changed and grown in her role. Nearly 10 years into choreographing this piece, “I’m better at the actual craft. It’s not just about having the instincts. It’s knowing what to do with those instincts.”
It’s also important to Ballet Quad-Cities founder Joedy Cook that “every single year, our ‘Nutcracker’ is fresh and unique.”
“Courtney’s choreography brings an element of unpredictability,” Cook said. “Everybody knows that music. It’s a very repetitious waltz. It could get mundane. But this one does not.”
She added that even if choreography or costuming didn’t alter, the company’s five new professional dancers provide their own “different look to the stage.”
“It’s always new,” Cook said. “With live performance, you’ll never see the same one twice.”
And Lyon expects the changes won't just fly by some audience members who have seen each “Nutcracker” performed here.
“Sometimes they’ll say to me, ‘You changed this or changed that,’” she said. “They have a connection to it. They’ll know if I change one little thing and they’ll tell me.”
The artistic director has a similar connection. Lyon knows every step of “The Nutcracker” by memory. She acts and dances through the scenes with each member of the cast during a three-month stretch of rehearsals.
This weekend, she’ll stand in the very back of the Alder Theatre's lower level, calling instructions to the orchestra, the dancers and the crew. She’ll ask herself a dozen times, “Are we telling the story in the most effective way?”
Later, she’ll rewatch the performance video on her laptop, searching for mistakes or ways to improve in the same manner a football coach watches game tape.
“It’s a lot of steps, a lot of dancers and you know a huge audience is going to see it,” Lyon said. “You could potentially put a lot of pressure on yourself to create this magical, perfect holiday experience.”
For her, it’s not about perfection. The pressure comes from creating a “Nutcracker” that was better than the last.