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Neglia Ballet to stage 'The Nutcracker' at Shea's

Not since Empire State Ballet in the early 1990s has a local dance company produced "The Nutcracker" on Buffalo's grandest stage, Shea's Performing Arts Center.

The last three groups to perform Tchaikovsky's beloved fairy tale there were Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Moscow Ballet and Ballet Met of Columbus, whose three-year contract with Shea's ended with the November 2008 run.

But "one for all, all for one" has become the watchword of the Buffalo arts community, and as a result Neglia Ballet has been handed the opportunity to stage its first "Nutcracker" at Shea's next fall in partnership with the historic theater and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

This will be a programming grand jette for Sergio Neglia and Heidi Halt, the husband and wife who founded Neglia Conservatory of Ballet 15 years ago and added the producing company, Neglia Ballet Artists, in 1999.

Over the past decade, under the umbrella name Ballet Artists of Western New York, Neglia has steadily expanded its educational and professional reach, adding summer classes for dance students in 2004 and producing such ballets as "Spartacus," "Giselle," "Don Quixote," "Baba Yaga" and -- last year at Shea's -- "Romeo and Juliet." It has performed with the Philharmonic at Artpark for the last three summers.

The operating budget has grown accordingly, reaching $294,000 in 2008. But bringing "Nutcracker" to the Main Street showhouse will cost nearly twice that -- roughly $500,000.

Easily Neglia's most ambitious project to date, the Nov. 27-28 ballet will be conceived and choreographed by Neglia, the artistic director, and Halt, the executive director.

"We usually have nothing to say about the design process, but we're creating this production literally from the ground up," said Mike Sawicz, a Buffalo theater veteran who recently joined Neglia Ballet as managing director. The production team includes costumer Donna Massimo, lighting designer Brian Cavanaugh and set designer Lynn Koscielniak.

The company expects to recruit professional dancers in Buffalo and New York City as soloists and corps de ballet members, and will audition Buffalo students for the children's roles. In all, about 150 people will be involved in the performance or behind the scenes, Sawicz estimated. Shea's will handle public relations, marketing and ticket sales.

"Nutcracker," which made its U.S. debut in San Francisco in 1944 and by the 1960s had become America's most popular ballet, "is something we've always wanted to said Halt, a ballerina who returned to her hometown in 1994 with her Argentina-born husband, the company's principal male dancer and artistic muse.

Shea's President Anthony C. Conte and Philharmonic Executive Director Dan Hart first discussed staging a made-in-Buffalo "Nutcracker" four years ago, after the Philharmonic returned to Shea's for the first time in many years for the landmark theater's 80th anniversary celebration.

"We wanted a very traditional 'Nutcracker' with a live orchestra," Conte said. "Bringing those elements together in this environment would be the best of all worlds."

When Halt nominated Neglia a year ago, Hart and Conte were ready to listen.

"The quality of what they put on the stage has improved tremendously" as the ballet company has grown, Conte said. "We think we won't lose anything in terms of production values, that they can put on a show at least as good as Ballet Met."

"We are impressed with what Neglia has done at Artpark over the last three years," Hart added. "When we saw the opportunity to collaborate with a homegrown company, it just seemed to make a lot of sense."

The idea also appealed to the John R. Oishei Foundation, a leading advocate of collaboration among arts organizations. The foundation awarded Neglia $150,000 for the project, and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo chipped in $50,000 and $25,000, respectively. Sawicz is busy writing grant proposals to cover the remaining half of production costs.

"We're doing it the way we wanted to do it, at Shea's and with the BPO," Halt said.

"We intend to make this a yearly thing in Western New York," Sawicz added. "Instead of money leaving town, it will stay here. That will be good for our economy."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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