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Arts Features

Holiday tradition returns, evokes memories


A beloved holiday tradition is returning to the stage of Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre this week after a lost year.

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, a sense of return is palpable among the dancers and musicians preparing for the ballet “The Nutcracker” after not being able to perform together last year.

“The electricity in the studios is real,” says Rachael Cierniakoski, the new managing director of Rochester City Ballet.

Attending a performance of “The Nutcracker” as a kid started Cierniakoski on her life in dance, and she says even now, hearing the music live still gives her goosebumps. And she's inspired by seeing a new generation experience that thrill, with the “little ones” joining in the tradition; the young dancers looking up to the older ones and learning from them.

Rochester City Ballet is performing this week with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Louisville Ballet Music Director Tara Simoncic, who conducted the RPO in “The Nutcracker” in 2019. This week’s performances are her first time conducting live music for dance in nearly two years.

Simoncic says that missing last year’s performances was a strange experience. She was keenly aware that something was “really absent” and that “it just didn’t really feel like the holidays either.”

Now that she’s back, she finds it “magical” to be part of this connection between dance and music, and she revels in the “moments that happen between us.”

In the orchestra, that connection is also felt by principal harpist Grace Browning, who describes Tchaikovsky’s music for “The Nutcracker” as “a harpist’s dream.” Even before she had played this music herself, Browning grew up watching a VHS tape of the ballet with Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing and found the choreography and music powerful.

Now, she says: “When we’re back in that music again, it’s such a dream.”

Performances of “The Nutcracker” continue through this Sunday at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.