The Early Childhood production of The Nutcracker at Gill St. Bernard’s has been enchanting audiences for more than 30 years. Fur-trimmed ballerinas, angels in their stocking feet, the exuberance of the Russian dancers—it’s adorable, every moment of it. But for the Early Childhood teachers and students, The Nutcracker is more than a performance. It is an integral piece of the academic curriculum that brings together reading, writing, storytelling, illustration and, of course, music and dance.
According to Lower School music teacher Jill Fedon, now in her 20th year with the production,all of the children in the Early Childhood program have a role, but it is the kindergarteners who take the lead. The kindergarteners read and hear different versions of the story in class. They also travel to see the ballet, this year attending a performance at The College of New Jersey. After having seen some of the ways the tale can be interpreted, the kindergarteners set about retelling the story in their own words. Once the text of the retelling is complete, the kindergartners work with the teachers to create a book, which stands nearly two feet high, and includes illustrations from the children. It is from this book that the narrators (also kindergarteners) will read during the performance.
This retelling is arguably the most significant piece of the curriculum: the children not only synthesize what they have learned, but they also work to make the story their own—at least in part. Fedon offers, "The story is pretty well established, but with each retelling, you see some of the class’s unique humor and personality come through. It is really a rite of passage for them. They have been in the production before, but as kindergartners they take ownership of it." That pride of ownership also inspires the younger children, who look forward to kindergarten when they will inherit The Nutcracker. Similarly, older students at Gill reserve a special place in their hearts for the production long after they have left Lower School. A glance at Milestones, the school’s tribute to its graduating class each year, reveals how many seniors still remember their kindergarten roles in the story.
Seeing the Lower School production of The Nutcracker, it is difficult to believe that it comes together in only three weeks. It is a tight timeframe, but one just right for keeping enthusiasm high among the youngsters. As students learn which parts they have been assigned and begin costume fittings and rehearsals, the set also starts to take shape. Each year, something new is added, courtesy of kindergarten teacher Linda Nisky who has been designing, glittering and gluing the sets for the past five years. She also enlists her husband to help with construction and installation.
From the costumes and sets to the story itself, each year The Nutcracker combines much that is familiar with something new. It is a happy combination for the Lower School, one that brings parents back long after their own children have graduated to volunteer their help and, of course, to see the show.