A Nutcracker for All

How one school uses this classic ballet to share dance with the entire student body

Renaissance Academy’s Christa Wilson helps a student in the snow corps get ready.

On the surface, the Renaissance Academy’s Nutcracker looks like many other productions of the ballet. There are party, battle and snow scenes performed in colorful costumes. But what the audience at the annual performances in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, may not know is that over half the ballet’s cast had no prior dance experience, and before participating in the production, knew very little about The Nutcracker.

The mix of dancers and nondancers is intentional, says Renaissance’s dance director Mehgan Jarvie. She seized an opportunity when she launched the production in 2007: Not only could The Nutcracker augment the school dance department’s two annual recitals, it could also expose the entire school to dance.

Each year, participation in the holiday ballet has increased. The all-inclusive Nutcracker has also inspired some of the production’s nondance students to enroll in the school’s dance classes. Renaissance principal Gina Guarino Buli says the production has translated into stronger community awareness of the school and its offerings. And Jarvie’s efforts, along with Renaissance’s arts goals, have earned the school national attention. Last spring, Renaissance Academy earned a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts School of Distinction in Arts Education award, and the dance department received special recognition.

Renaissance Academy is a K–12 public charter school that opened in 2000 and draws students of all economic levels from 18 districts in the Phoenixville area. In addition to core curriculum classes in math, science, history and English, Renaissance offers music, drama, dance and visual arts. Roughly 40 percent of the school’s 1,000 students take dance, which is required in the third grade and offered as an elective to students in grades 7–12.

Now in its fourth year, Jarvie’s Nutcracker production has grown from a low-budget affair, featuring a cast of 110 students performing excerpts of the ballet in the school’s gym, to a full-blown production with 145 students dancing three shows at a local 500-seat theater.

Last year, the production cost $25,000, some of which Jarvie raised through grants and fundraising. She supplemented this support with the previous year’s ticket sales (roughly $10,000). Students pay a $20 fee and purchase their own shoes and tights. But if someone cannot afford these contributions, Jarvie waives the fee and purchases the child’s shoes and tights using production budget funds.

Casting for The Nutcracker begins each fall, when Jarvie announces open call auditions. Since she casts everyone, the audition serves more as an evaluation to see where students fit best. Jarvie separates students by grade level and teaches each group 15 counts of the choreography (most of which is original to her). She assesses how well each student can follow and repeat dance movements. She also looks at how they handle performing in front of the other auditionees. “Most of our students have never performed before,” she says. To make sure everyone has a positive experience, she doesn’t put anyone in the spotlight who might feel uncomfortable there.

Lead roles don’t always go to the best dancers or oldest students. One year Jarvie cast a fourth-grader as the Sugar Plum Fairy; another year, a high school senior performed the role. And students with no dance experience are often cast as leads. “I look for someone who is going to sparkle onstage,” she says.

Rehearsals begin the week after auditions and take place after school in the Renaissance dance studio. Jarvie generally uses non-ballet terms, especially for younger students. “Teaching pas de bourrée, I may say step-back-side-together, or for échappé, I say ‘Jump your feet apart and then jump them back together crisscross,’” she says.

Jarvie prepares choreography ahead of time, but she’s always ready to make adjustments. “I try to make everyone look their best,” she says. “I would rather have simple movements with everyone smiling than complex steps the students are going to worry about.”

In November, Jarvie adds Saturday run-through rehearsals. For many participants, this is their first glimpse of the full Nutcracker story. She uses large posters arranged in the ballet’s order to guide the students. The posters also provide practical information about each scene: who’s dancing, where they enter and exit and what the number’s costumes look like.

On the final Saturday, the students gather for a dress rehearsal. Dancers try on their costumes, which are either purchased from a costume company or pulled from the inventory of those used in years past. Jarvie enlists parents and faculty to play the ballet’s adult roles. Ron Confino, who works in Renaissance’s technology department and coaches the high school’s golf and baseball teams, made his dance debut in last year’s production playing Drosselmeyer. Confino sees his participation as a way of opening up the minds of student athletes. “When they ask about me being in The Nutcracker I tell them, ‘Yeah it’s fun. A lot of pro athletes take ballet,’” says Confino. Seeing their coach onstage, he hopes, may inspire the young athletes to say, “I want to do that.” DT

 

Steve Sucato is a former dancer living in Ohio. He writes for a number of publications and is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association.

Photo Courtesy of Mehgan Jarvie

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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