Ballet is an art form that is passed down traditionally from generation to generation.
I am reminded of the value of that tradition every year as we prepare for our annual production of the Peanutcracker-The Story In A Nutshell.
I was inspired by young audience members to choreograph Peanutcracker in 1993 in the SF Bay Area. After 25 years of performing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy professionally, I came to discover through speaking with young fans that the Nutcracker was often children’s first introduction to ballet and that often very young children found the full two-hour ballet long and difficult to follow. Peanutcracker is a 45-minute narrated version of The Nutcracker designed for families with young children. The Peanutcracker cast includes both professional dancers and a cast of student dancers to appeal to younger audiences.
The Peanutcracker was an immediate success in the Bay Area, and we have continued to perform it annually in NV since we founded SNB in 2001.
While some of the choreography for the professional dancers differs from year to year, most of the children’s roles remain the same, and we follow the ballet tradition of passing down a role from a past cast member to a present cast member. It is both refreshing and inspiring to see older, more experienced dancers help younger dancers learn the roles that they have done in past Peanutcracker productions.
The lead female child’s role of “Clara” is particularly important. I asked this year’s Claras (Mara Weir and Alexis Hanna) about the experience of learning the role from past Claras. Mara said: “I really like learning from others who danced the part because they have helped me feel more comfortable expressing emotion.” Alexis agreed: “they showed me how important it is to use my body to express my feelings.”
Haley Pershall (2018 Clara) and Sofia Riella (2019 Clara) said that they loved learning from past Claras because they shared their “inner thoughts” and “important performance tips” (such as how to hold the Nutcracker to make movement easier).
Dafne D’Olymio ( 2017 Clara) shared that: “Working with others who have performed the role helped me to have confidence; it was so wonderful having their support.”
Annika Johnson (2017 Clara) put it beautifully: “Learning the role from a previous Clara created a strong camaraderie between all of us. I had the pleasure of bonding with those girls, and that spirit of friendship is something that we are now able to pass down to later Claras.” She added: ”The older girls also shared the passion of ballet and Peanutcracker. Through their guidance, we not only learned the steps and timing but the joy and love and fun built into the foundation of the show. “
That joy and passion became evident to me last week in a Saturday rehearsal for Peanutcracker.
We had run through the entire ballet, and I was giving correction notes as I always do before we run through the ballet for a second time. I was correcting the younger, less experienced dancers in the “horse dance” that takes place in the party scene. I asked for volunteers from the cast: “ Are there any dancers present who have either danced this before or who know the dance who can demonstrate the excitement of the dance for these new young dancers?”
To my utter amazement, about 10 dancers volunteered to demonstrate. (Dancers from age 12 to 23: student dancers, SNB trainees, professional company members and even the SNB soloist who will perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy). They all danced with great enthusiasm; they demonstrated the camaraderie and esprit de corps that SNB has become known for.
I felt tears well up in my eyes; it was the most exciting horse dance that I have ever seen. When they finished dancing, the entire cast erupted in loud applause. When we had the second run-through of the ballet, the excitement and joy in the room had increased 100 percent.
The value of passing down ballet from generation to generation is something to be treasured. Ballet is an art form made of people, by people and for people. It is an art form that I have been in for over 50 years, and I have had the honor of learning from some of the greatest professionals in the field.
Ballet is an art form I have treasured my entire life.
As Annika Johnson beautifully put it: “I am so grateful for all my mentors.”
Sierra Nevada Ballet performs Peanutcracker –The Story In A Nutshell LIVE in early December for both school children and for the community at the Carson City Community Center and at the Pioneer Center in Reno. For Ticket information call SNB at 775-360-8663 or visit www.sierranevadaballet.org.