The Nutcracker Kicks off the Holiday Season

Go Behind the Scenes of Hilton Head Dance Theatre’s 37th Annual Show


November 2023 Issue
By Edwina Hoyle
Photography Provided by Hilton Head Dance Theatre


The Hilton Head Dance Theatre’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” kicks off each year’s holiday season. With its colorful costumes, dreamlike score, and memorable roles, “The Nutcracker” ballet is a Christmas classic. Founded in 1986, this year will be Hilton Head Dance Theatre’s 37th annual production of the ballet. This fantastic tale about a girl who befriends a nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve and wages a battle against the evil Mouse King has been delighting audiences for more than 125 years. And for many youngsters, it is their first introduction to the world of classical music and ballet.

This dazzling production will thrill children and adults alike as Tchaikovsky’s musical scores sweep us along with Marie as she travels to the Land of Sweets and the Land of Snow, encountering the Mouse King, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Nutcracker Prince. Audiences marvel at the Arabian dancers, the snowflakes, baby mice, and Mother Ginger, but few of us realize what it takes behind the scenes to bring “The Nutcracker” to life.

Karena Brock-Carlyle and her husband, John Carlyle, are the owners of the Hilton Head Dance School and artistic directors of the Theatre. “They are the heart and inspiration,” said Lori Finger, board president. “The Nutcracker is our big event and an important production for revenue. It’s always on our minds because it’s an enormous project. We have a great team of board members, parents and former students, friends of the Theatre, plus a hard-working and talented group of seamstresses.”

There are 177 students in the dance school ranging from age 3 to high school seniors. For “The Nutcracker”, adorable three-year olds will perform as petite snowflakes, the four-year olds will dance as baby mice, and five-year olds as tiny chefs. “Many of our high school girls have been in our dance school since they were three years old,” Lori said. “Roles are cast to play to the strength of the dancers. Everybody performs multiple parts in core pieces, sharing roles over six performances.”

“We start classes in late August to learn the dances for the production in early November and gain momentum toward the holiday season,” Lori said.Nutcracker1123 2

Training the dancers and holding rehearsals is just one facet of this colossal project. The seven volunteer seamstresses in the costume shop, including Karena, have the daunting task of perfecting costumes for each dancer. They refurbish, refit, and create new costumes every year. The school stores literally thousands of tutus, headpieces and costumes to refurbish and refit. And this mighty team sews crystals onto handmade headpieces, appliques on tutus, adds boning to the bodices, and buttons and piping on other costumes. To create new masterpieces, they purchase new bolts of fabric. Karena designs new costumes, each one fitted to the performers to match their unique dimensions. For those performers who dance with partners, an additional layer of security is included the night of the performance to prevent wardrobe malfunctions by sewing up the back of the costume with dental floss.

The sets, backdrops and a special dance floor must be moved from storage to the high school theater. Dads help with all that, while moms pitch in at the Nutcracker Boutique in the lobby. “It’s a collaborative effort with dedicated volunteers, staff and the theater manager at the high school who is the sound and lights engineer,” Lori explained. Board members work on publicity, the venue, marketing, recruiting volunteers and selling tickets.

“John is the thread that holds it all together,” Karena said. He decides the ballets, musical scores, choreography, costumes, sets, and does the production work. He makes sure each year is different and better.

Finally, the work is done, and the curtain rises each season. “Our mission is broader than a performance opportunity for our students,” Lori said. “We want to foster appreciation of the art of dance in the Lowcountry. It’s a celebration of community for residents and visitors, and we also hope to bring people in for whom it’s their first exposure to classical ballet.”

Beginning 20 years ago, the theatre asked set designer Jack Richards to do an original painting to depict scenes from our Nutcracker production. He has done one every year which we use to advertise the production. “This year’s painting (on left) is one of my favorites and most boldly says Nutcracker!" said Lori Finger.

Karena Brock-Carlyle was named principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in 1973. She has danced throughout Europe, Asia, Latin America, Canada and in all 50 states in America. She performed at the White House for two presidents—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
John studied with some of the finest ballet instructors in the world and has danced professionally with the City Center Dance Theatre, The Tampa Ballet, and The Savannah Ballet. He’s been Guest Artist with Columbia City Ballet and the Lexington Ballet. John and Karena have a son, Timothy.

The dance school boasts four top notch instructors certified by the American Ballet Theater. Ballet master, Jamal Edwards, is charged with enlisting guest artists—this year from Ballet Spartanburg.

Celebrate the beginning of the holiday season with Hilton Head Dance Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” November 10-19. Tickets for the six performances at the Seahawk Cultural Center at Hilton Head Island High School are available through

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