Rio Rancho High School students in the design department put the finishing touches on the set for the first act of “The Nutcracker” Monday in the RRHS Performing Arts Center.(Argen Duncan)
Sparrow Dance Productions is debuting its first large production, also believed to be the first full-length offering of “The Nutcracker” ballet in Rio Rancho, at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday Dec. 10 and 2 p.m. Sunday Dec. 11 at the Rio Rancho High School Performing Arts Center, 301 Loma Colorado Blvd. The story is reimagined but maintains the thread of magical characters and countries.
“I think at the holidays, we feel our pain the most,” said Christina Daly-Smith, “Nutcracker” director and choreographer, as well as Sparrow Dance co-owner. “… And so I just want my ‘Nutcracker’ to put people’s hearts back together.”
She hopes the ballet will remind the audience of the magic of Christmas and of life.
Daly-Smith and her husband, Director of Operations and Sparrow Dance co-owner James Smith, opened the studio five years ago.
Not long after, the couple faced three brutal years. Daly-Smith was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, having to cope with chronic pain while teaching middle school full time.
Then COVID-19 hit. When schools finally reopened, one of Daly-Smith’s students attacker her, causing a lingering traumatic brain injury.
Through it all, the Smiths kept Sparrow Dance running.
“It seemed like every time we encountered a devastation – including the pandemic – it inspired us to keep the magic going,” Daly-Smith said.
Now, the couple is running a production with 52 dancers, 13 of them paid, on a stage with sets and 100 costumes created in-house. The stage crew is composed of about eight students from the RRHS design department, with their teachers Gael Natal and Jim Rivera serving as sound engineer and lighting designer.
Daly-Smith has been impressed with the young “techies.”
“They care,” she said. “They make eye contact when you’re talking. They compliment my dancers when they’re on the stage.”
Daly-Smith rewrote “The Nutcracker” to make the story more cohesive so the audience doesn’t have to keep trying to figure out what’s happening. She wanted to maintain the foundation of the traditional ballet at the same time.
In Daly-Smith’s version, young Clara still receives a Christmas gift of a nutcracker that becomes a living prince. But, the story becomes her journey to finding her place in the world through a fantastical dream much like the original ballet.
Daly-Smith said the rewrite was a risk because it may not be what the audience expects.
“But not taking those risks is not an option,” she said. “I have to live myself fully as an artist.”
Jennifer Leach, assistant director and ballerina portraying the Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen, said she loves the new version.
“It’s really cool to see pieces from the first act connect to the second act and vice versa,” she said.
Starting in August, dancers have rehearsed “The Nutcracker” for 20 hours a week in the studio. Then, there was sewing, set design and more, amounting to a full-time job for Daly-Smith.
She said she came from toxic, even abusive, dance environments where the dancer had to fit the costume. At Sparrow Dance Productions, the costume is made to fit the dancer, creating opportunities for people who thought their careers were over.
“I’m one of those dancers who never thought I’d be on the stage again, let alone dancing the roles I’m dancing,” Leach said.
In her prior career, she filled slots in the back of productions. Now, she’s in leading roles.
Leach said the Sugar Plum Fairy is the most magical role any little girl can see on stage, and she gets to be that character for them, including her young daughters.
“I’d say this production is definitely just the beginning for us,” she said.
Daly-Smith is working on six original ballets she hopes to debut in the next 10 years.
“I do believe Rio Rancho is a City of Vision, and God has me here for that,” she said.
For “Nutcracker” tickets, call Smith at 505-985-7947 or come by the Sparrow Dance studio, 103 NM 528, Ste. D-6, at Sundt Road and NM 528. For more information, visit sparrowdancenm.com.