When Natalia Mallory decided this was the year to bring her vision for "The Nutcracker" for the community to the stage, her guiding force was inclusion.
"I wanted to include anyone who was inspired who wanted to dance," said Mallory, founder and artistic director of the Mallory Academy of Dance, who is creating her own holiday tradition this weekend at the Fox Theater.
That's also her motto for her studio, opened in 2018, which offers a pre-professional ballet program guided by a syllabus from the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) as well as classes in tap, jazz, modern dance, lyrical hip-hop and more.
Although the academy has put on a number of other productions and stays busy with its competition team, MAD Krew, this is its first "Nutcracker."
"I've always wanted to do it. Civic has been doing it for years," Mallory said of the dance center where she trained as a teen and taught afterwards.
"It's a holiday tradition for so many people. I thought more people could be part of the tradition. I wanted to do something that includes multiple people."
This "Nutcracker" features 78 performers, ranging in age from 4 years old to north of 60, a mix of trained and beginning dancers (more on them later) who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Mallory said the show features performers from 21 different ethnicities including Egyptian, African-American and Trinidadian and Tobagonian (her family is from the Caribbean island). Participants shared biographical information in a survey.
"To merge and include is my mission as a person. I truly believe in inclusion."
Dancers hail from her academy as well as other area studios including cheer programs.
"Some are new to dance, maybe dancing for a year. Some are from cheer. Some have disabilities as well."
Mallory said, "Everybody should have an opportunity. ... You have to reach people where they are at and not hold everybody to one standard."
In this production, the young heroine is Marie, a nod both to the protagonist of the original story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," and to Mallory's grandmother whose middle name was Marie.
"I wanted to bring my version. What makes mine really special are the Easter eggs of my culture. There's a character named Forbin, which is my mom's maiden name. The cousins are named after my cousins. In the 'Waltz of the Flowers,' they are island flowers — bird of paradise, hibiscus and Chaconia, the national flower of Trinidad and Tobago."
For the lead role, Mallory cast three different dancers — Lyla Martin, 9; Soleil Garcia, 10; and Kinsley Krause, 11 — with each set to perform the role in one of the three performances this weekend.
Although she would normally only cast one lead dancer, she made an exception for this first "Nutcracker" based on the quality of the dancers.
"I truly loved what they brought in the audition. They're all really different dancers and bring something different to the dance."
Admitting "I do everything for my family," Mallory said being able to involve her family was a key factor in bringing the show together this year. Her mother, Dawn, is a dance teacher who is helping with a lot of behind-the-scenes work, brother Yannis plays the toymaker Drosselmeyer, and nephews Josiah and Jayden and niece Destiny also perform in the show. (Her sister, Sasha, was also set to dance but had a touring commitment.)
The director credits her mother with making everything possible.
"In my heart, I move with others in mind, to make sure everybody is being seen," Mallory said. "I got that from my mom. She formed us to be so much about community. ... This wouldn't happen if she didn't raise us that way, very much community-oriented."
Mallory isn't the only one who's making this show a family affair. Many of the dancers have moms and dads who will also dance in the show during the party scene in the first act.
"Many of the moms are trained dancers. Some people say they're trained but you never know. But these moms are. At auditions, I said, 'You are everything.' I changed my whole party scene for them."
The dads in the cast needed a little more work but Mallory said that adds to the performance.
"Because it's a raw process learning steps for the first time. It's a different magic, they're not used to the same structure. With so many different people involved, it adds textures and layers to the performance."
Gabe Garcia, whose daughters Soleil and Gianna, are in the show, said he was "volun-told" he was going to dance in the show after another dad had to drop out.
"I've been at it for three weeks and have been able to learn the choreography," said the former school athlete who now works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management with no plans to quit his day job.
"For me, it's pretty involved, but it's been a lot of fun. We're going to be able to look back on this with the girls."
Fellow dad Armand Fitzgerald will not be dancing alongside daughter Kailee but will proudly watch her from the audience and admire his handiwork. The general contractor built the elaborate Mother Ginger framework out of PVC pipes for the scene in which her children emerge from under her large hoop skirt to dance. (Another father will be in the role guiding out the large framework.) He also built boxes that will serve as giant presents.
Having only seen some of the show's pieces, Fitzgerald is ready for the big show this weekend.
"I'm looking forward to seeing this whole production come together."
Mallory is also excited to have audiences experience her take on the classic.
"Nobody 'owns' 'The Nutcracker. What I have to say is different than their (version), but if I want to do it I'm going to do it. If you live your life in a box, you'll never get the flowers you deserve. You'll only get the light others shine on you, not the light you could have (if you make it yourself)."