Dana Oland: Growing up with 'The Nutcracker'

Young dancers can glimpse their future in the holiday classic.

December 20, 2013 


    BALLET IDAHO'S "THE NUTCRACKER": 8 p.m. Dec. 20; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21; and noon and 4 p.m. Dec. 22, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. $38, $43 and $58. BSU students receive a 50 percent discount; faculty and staff receive a 25 percent discount. 426-1110, BalletIdaho.org.

    IDAHO REGIONAL BALLET'S "THE NUTCRACKER": 7 p.m. Dec. 20; and 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 21, Special Events Center, Boise State University. $25-$40 general, $18-$33 students and children. 338-4633, IdahoRegionalBallet.com.

Christmas comes early at Ballet Idaho when "The Nutcracker" rehearsals begin. Starting in October, the studio fills with kids 4 and older on the weekends as they practice their baby mouse moves and learn the Salt Water Taffy Sailor variation that includes jumping on a miniature trampoline.

For the smallest ones, rehearsals last about a half hour. Their time on stage is less than a minute. Not long, but enough to inspire young dancers such as Cristina Zimmerman to continue.

"My first time, I was a Mini Mouse in Toni Pimble's 'Nutcracker,' " she remembers. "We ran around Clara's bed and squealed, and then ran off."

The statement comes with a giggle and the wistfulness of a fond childhood memory. It's from these humble beginnings that many ballet dancers embark on their careers.

It's "The Nutcracker" season in Boise, with two productions on stage this weekend. Idaho Regional Ballet's performances, staged by Lisa Moon, will play for three shows at the Special Events Center on Boise State's campus. Just down the street, Ballet Idaho's performances, staged by Peter Anastos, will run for five performances at the Morrison Center.

As Zimmerman, now 15, grew up, she took on new roles: Angel, Ladybug and - when Anastos took over artistic direction of Ballet Idaho - the leading child's role of Clara, who is the ballet's central character.

This year, Zimmerman and fellow Ballet Idaho Academy dancer Sara Meyers will make their debuts in the Snow Scene and "Waltz of the Flowers," dancing alongside the company's corps de ballet.

"It's really cool to be here," Meyers says. "I remember watching 'Flowers' from the wings and imagining myself in it. It's the most beautiful dance, and it's my favorite, and I'm finally doing it."

Most dancers can track their careers by the roles they've danced in "The Nutcracker," says principal ballerina Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti, who danced for Ballet Idaho under Pimble and Anastos. It's part of the cycle that keeps ballet moving foward.

"Since I started doing 'Nutcracker' when I was 14, I think I've done every possible role. I love watching kids like Cristina and Sara. I was dancing Clara when Cristina was a mouse running around the stage. Now, she's dancing alongside of me."

Between the two productions, close to 300 kids will become part of this enduring tradition of American ballet. Multiply that by the thousands of performances produced every year by companies, both big and small, nationally.

It became a tradition in Boise in the mid-1980s when American Festival Ballet started producing the Tchaikovsky ballet. That company became Ballet Idaho in the 1992, then merged with Eugene Ballet in 1994. When that partnership dissolved, and Anastos took the reins of the new Ballet Idaho in 2006, getting "The Nutcracker" on stage became a major priority, Anastos says.

"It's likely that we produced the fastest 'Nutcracker' in history," Anastos says. "I arrived in May, dancers started in September and we danced our first 'Nutcracker' in December. I knew that if we missed that opportunity that first season we would never get it back."

There is no other ballet that offers this kind of opportunity for dancers to grow.

"It is this unique thing," he says "It's heartwarming to watch them grow up with it."

Anastos remembers meeting dancer Jessica Sulikowski when she was 12 years old, dancing his "Nutcracker" for the first time in Red Bank, N.J. Anastos returned for several years to stage it and other productions, and he watched her grow up.

When he came to Ballet Idaho to rebuild this company from nearly square one, he invited her to audition. Now 23, this year she will make her debut as the Snow Queen, along with the several other roles she does, such as Dew Drop Fairy and Arabian variation.

"That (Snow Queen) is pretty big," Sulikowski says. "When I was a kid I would watch the older dancers do these roles, and I was always wanting and dreaming about doing them. I never thought I would pursue professional dancing, so this is the icing on the cake, to complete the cycle every season with 'Nutcracker.' "

Idaho Regional Ballet, a youth company produced at Eagle Performing Arts Center led by Jeff and Cathy Giese, started producing "The Nutcracker" in 2009. Before that, they produced an original ballet by Moon based on E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

In this production, students perform the major roles such as the Russian variation and Snow Queen, with guest soloists in the Sugar Plum and Cavalier roles.

This year, ninth-grader Amanda Horiuchi, a former Party Boy and Clara, is making her way up the ladder in Snow Scene, Mirlitons and "Waltz of the Flowers."

(A mirliton is a woodwind flute that children play. It's one of the second-act variations that represents sweets and other childhood treats. Ballet Idaho calls it Marzipan, after the almond candy, in their version.)

"It's so much fun," Horiuchi says. "You get to learn new dances each year, and it's so fun to perform with all the other dancers, and it's a lot of fun to see Ben and Leta dance. They're so good."

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths will dance the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

This is Griffiths' fourth year coming back to Boise for "The Nutcracker" created by his former teachers. A soloist with PNB, this year he performed as the Nutcracker Prince on that company's opening night Dec. 3.

But Griffiths, 29, did his first performance in "The Nutcracker" in Pimble's production as Fritz, Clara's little brother, when he was 10.

A gifted dancer, Griffiths studied under Moon and the Gieses when they ran the Ballet Idaho Academy until he entered the School of American Ballet in New York City at 15. He won a Princess Grace Award in 2003 while at Boston Ballet, joined PNB in 2005 and became a soloist in 2008.

"It's always fun to come back," Griffiths says. "The kids are so excited and it's great performing for friends and family again. A lot of dancers grow jaded about 'The Nutcracker,' but not me. Other repertory might be more exciting, but there's something that feels comfortable about it, and it gets me in the holiday spirit."

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