The first iteration of Heidi Robitshek's "The Nutcracker" looked much different than it does today.
In 1978, dancers performed a bare-bones version of the beloved ballet's second act.
"We didn't have costumes. We didn't have sets. We didn't have anything. And then it grew out of that" said Robitshek, former artistic director of the Chamber Ballet.
It's evolved every year since, with the first full-length production in 1984. For the past 10 years, the show has been presented by Virginia Regional Ballet, founded in 2006 by Robitshek and former student Adelle Carpenter.
"It's a Williamsburg tradition, a Christmas tradition," Carpenter said.
With performances Dec. 17 and 18 at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, Virginia Regional Ballet's "The Nutcracker" features nearly 60 dancers, most of them between the ages of 6 and 18.
And this year, for the first time since 2007, the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra will accompany the ballet, breathing life into Tchaikovsky's score, with Janna Hymes at the podium.
"We're thrilled to be back," said Carolyn Keurajian, the orchestra's executive director.
Carpenter explained that paying for a live orchestra is a large expense, but Virginia Regional Ballet raised enough money this year to make it possible.
"There really is a huge difference between watching the ballet to something that's pre-recorded versus having a live orchestra," Keurajian said. "It just adds so much more to the production."
It adds to the experience for Virginia Regional Ballet students, too. As the school's main production, "The Nutcracker" is one of a few chances to perform on a large scale and stage.
"It's really great to know that so many people came to see you, and you get to be part of such a great tradition," said Ainsley Carpenter, 13.
She enjoys the chance to learn from the professional dancers who join the production as guests every year, saying it gives her hope that she can one day dance at the same level.
This year's professional guests come from around the country. Dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy is Abigail Simon, a freelance dancer who has formerly performed with The Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Zachary Catazaro, from the New York City Ballet, will dance the role of the Cavalier.
Shannon Smith, artistic associate and men's program coordinator at Fort Wayne Ballet in Indiana, will partner with Virginia Regional Ballet senior dancer Karen Fleming in the Snow Queen's pas de deux.
For Ainsley and fellow dancers Sydney Ely and Margaret Luck, "The Nutcracker" brings to mind midnight rehearsals and elaborate costumes. But mostly, it means memories made with friends.
"When I come here, I feel welcome to be myself," said Sydney, 14, who feels she can't be as open at school.
"A lot of dancers are really introverts," Adelle Carpenter said. "You wouldn't think that to watch them on the stage and how they move and project and act and are so big, but they really are pretty introverted people."
For Ainsley, who's danced her entire life, dance allows expression.
"You get to express yourself—without saying anything," she said.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
Want to go?
When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 17 and 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Where: Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, 601 Jamestown Road
Tickets: Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit dancevrb.com/nutcracker