BRADENTON -- Two days before the opening of her 22nd version of "The Nutcracker," Allison Norton is most concerned about her dog's performance in the ballet production.
The Dance Theatre of Bradenton will raise the curtain on the classic holiday ballet Saturday and Sunday at Manatee High School.
Norton, 52, said bringing a dog on stage for the performance adds an element she hasn't seen in other ballet productions.
"To me, it warms the whole stage," Norton said. She's an animal lover and once had nine animals at once; five cats and four dogs. "What is sweeter than seeing the family dog?"
Norton's Cavachon, Sheffield, will play the family dog in the Nutcracker and Norton has had him since October. He hasn't had as much time to train for being on stage as had her two previous Bichon Frises. She lost both dogs within four weeks and adopted Sheffield on a whim when she went into the store to play with puppies to lift her spirits.
This year's production is a challenge not only because she has to train Sheffield for the show but because a lot of Norton's older dancers graduated. Many younger dancers are taking on larger roles for the first time, Norton said.
"This year I have that concern with some kids that are taking on roles that are generally done with older dancers," she said. "This is very new for them and they have to come through. They have to be on completely. It's so critical in dance that everyone is exactly the same."
She's also brought two professional dancers from Orlando Ballet for the production. Bringing a level of professionalism is important to Norton who saw a hole in the community arts and culture scene when she opened her studio at 5657 Manatee Ave. W. The only other ballet in the area was the Sarasota Ballet, she said.
The Nutcracker started in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 1800s. It was first performed in the United States in 1944 by the San Francisco ballet.
"I was told when I moved here that Bradenton took a back seat to Sarasota," she said. "So my mission was to start the company and keep it in Bradenton."
Manatee County's Tourist Development Council recently made the same observation Norton made years ago and is working on assembling a countywide arts and culture organization. Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Tourist Development Council and the Board of Manatee County Commissioners approved $50,000 to help create the organization over two years. He said the working group, made up of arts and culture organizations from "the four corners" of Manatee County, is moving along well.
"It's been one of the most fulfilling things for me personally, to see the passion and intensity that the arts and history people have in the community, and I think they're headed down the right road," Falcione said.
A working group has met twice and will convene again Thursday to help decide what area arts and culture organizations are needed.
Though Norton hasn't been approached about the countywide organization, she's bringing arts and culture to Manatee County through recitals and the Nutcracker performance every year.
Kelly Clark, communications director for the bureau, said arts and culture are an important aspect of a city when attracting tourists.
"That's what people really like to see when they come to an area," Clark said. "It's what makes a town unique."
Norton grew up in Jacksonville and moved to Bradenton in 1989. A friend suggested she open her dance studio.
"I felt I could not teach dancers as many days a week as I wanted to at other studios," Norton said.
She opened the studio in 1992 and started the nonprofit Dance Theatre of Bradenton in 1993 as a separate entity. The studio and nonprofit later merged.
Norton always expects last-minute changes and issues the week before show. She's dealt with everything from a theater flooding to the death of a dancer's family member the week before a performance. She follows the famous show business adage.
"Anybody that knows me knows there's always something happening," Norton said. "Every day something happens that's like, 'Are you kidding me?' But you know, the show must go on."
Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter@jayohday.