Creating ‘The Nutcracker’: It’s kids’ stuff

Gavin Larsen and a ballet school's worth of students get ready for OBT's annual holiday ballet, opening Saturday

It is 3:45 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Chattering children in various sizes and shapes, dressed in practice clothes, mill around the lobby outside the main studio in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s current digs on Southeast Sixth Avenue, where Nutcracker rehearsals will soon take place. There isn’t a whole lot of time left before OBT’s annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker opens at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, December 13.

The crowd spills over into the corridor outside the company’s second studio, where children’s ballet master Gavin Larsen is coaching Ruby Mae Lefebvre, one of the Maries, in the first act transition scene between the party’s end and the battle of the mice and toy soldiers.  Two more Maries, Malia McClanahan and Zaida Johnson, sit quietly on the studio floor, backs against the wall, intent on what Lefebre is doing and what Larsen is saying about it.

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Tchaikovsky’s score is dramatic and scary; Balanchine’s choreography deceptively simple in this part of the story of a young girl’s Christmas Eve dream of warring mice and toy soldiers and a journey to the Land of the Sweets. Marie is alone late at night in the Stahlbaum parlor, having fallen asleep on a settee, holding her injured toy Nutcracker. Her mother has put the Nutcracker into a doll’s bed and tucked a shawl around her exhausted child, but later Marie awakens and rises to look for her new toy. The music swells menacingly, and Marie runs around the stage, terrified at being alone in the dark.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewLefebvre, who is 11 years old, is blessed with an extremely pretty face, which she knows how to use to dramatic effect. (Many older and professional dancers don’t seem to know what to do with their faces, including modern and contemporary practitioners.) The music starts; she runs. Larsen counts for her, and then stops the music to tell her she’s a little behind the beat. Lefebvre tries again; again Larsen stops her to suggest an arm be held lower. Lefebvre tries yet again, her mobile face and speedy feet convincing me of her fear. And then it’s time to move next door to the big studio, so Larsen can work on the second-act entrances before full company rehearsals begin the following week.

Eighty-one students from OBT’S School are performing in this year’s Nutcracker, and since early autumn they have been learning to be 19th century party guests, toy soldiers, mice, second-act candies of various kinds, and the little Pulchinelles darting in and out from under Mother Ginger’s skirts.  As in Act One, they have dancing to do, but the timing of their entrances at the beginning of Act Two requires an equal amount of presence and musicality.

Larsen, who danced many of the children’s roles in Balanchine’s Nutcracker while a student at the School of American Ballet, and major roles such as Dewdrop and the Sugarplum Fairy during her seven years as a principal dancer with OBT, is just the person to instill Balanchinean values in OBT’s students: a natural appearance on stage, precision, speed when called for, and sensitivity to Tchaikovsky’s music. This year, there will be a live orchestra at six of the 17 performances (the first and second weekends), but not for the three shows that will take place after Christmas (a first for the company), on December 26 and 27.

Also new this year are three soloists cast as the Sugarplum Fairy: Candace Bouchard, who has danced Dewdrop in past years with limpid, sparkling speed; dark-haired, dark-eyed Eva Burton, whose joy in dancing was palpable in Nicolo Fonte’s recent Never Stop Falling (In Love), and Martina Chavez, who proved herself a Balanchine dancer last fall in the Agon pas de deux.

Veyoncé Ratcliffe as Marie and Collin Trummel as Fritz in the 2011 "Nutcracker." This year, Trummel will be the Nut Prince. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Veyoncé Ratcliffe as Marie and Collin Trummel as Fritz in the 2011 “Nutcracker.” This year, Trummel will be the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Male roles abound in The Nutcracker, of course, and I look forward each year to seeing the Candy Cane hoop dance, the Cavalier, and the youngster dancing the Nutcracker Prince. This year, Collin Trummel, who is especially good at the mime description of the first act battle, reprises the role, alternating with Eliot Wallace. I saw a little bit of Wallace’s performance in rehearsal, and he looks promising indeed.

Children’s rehearsals started on September 13. “We have been rehearsing every Saturday since then, with some weekday afternoons thrown in wherever I saw an empty studio,” Larsen said. “It’s not quite enough time, but we do the best with what we have.”  When Larsen says they are “doing the best with what we have,” she is referring to limited studio space and therefore insufficient rehearsal time, since the company has to share its two studios with the School. If all goes well, when children’s rehearsals begin next September it will be in a new building, with double the studio space. OBT has sold the lot on which the existing building, once a bank, now stands, and the search for better quarters has begun.

Meanwhile, what the company definitely has is a group of  talented, well-taught kids who are focused in rehearsal, yet at ease and enjoying themselves, reflecting a new tone to the school under Anthony Jones’ direction. Learning these second-act entrances, they are clearly quick studies: they listen attentively, and ask intelligent, practical questions as Larsen, moving quickly, demonstrates what she wants from them.  As I leave, they are well on their way to a smooth performance.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” opens Saturday, Dec. 13, and continues through Dec. 27. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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