Coaching the Nutcracker

Jet-lagged, bleary-eyed, but with the sudden burst of energy that comes with finally arriving at a long-awaited destination, we wound our way through the immigration lines at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. We were about to do a job about which I felt equal parts excitement, pride, anxiety and trepidation. As Oregon Ballet Theatre’s newly appointed children’s rehearsal coach (I recently retired from a 17-year performing career with OBT, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Alberta Ballet), my assignment was to teach and rehearse a cast of Korean children in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker for a performance with Oregon Ballet Theatre in two months’ time. Traveling with me were Thyra Hartshorn, OBT’s production director, and Kevin Poe, a former dancer who would share the coaching responsibilities.

 

 

DAY ONE:

 

Oh, jet lag . . . though exhausted from the trip, I’m awake at 3 am, worrying about the day ahead. Although Kevin and I had estimated we needed 30 hours to teach all the children’s roles, we’ve just found out that we’ll have only 13. We’ll be working with students from the Korea National University of the Arts, the premiere classical training ground, but Balanchine’s choreography and style are totally foreign to them and they might have a hard time adapting. I’m also worried about my own ability to do this job—to get the work done in time and do it well.

 

Our first rehearsal doesn’t even begin until 7 pm, after the kids finish a full day of academics and ballet classes. I’m startled to see that we’ll be working with 10 to 12-year-olds until 11 pm, but hope that excitement will keep them alert. Finally, we walk into our rehearsal space to find a few dozen children romping amidst a cacophony of Korean voices. The entire cast has been assembled for us to look over and approve. The children all look just right—a pretty, clever and wise-beyond-her-years Marie, a tiny and impish Fritz and a quietly confident young boy as the Prince.

 

Kevin begins setting the first entrances of Party Scene with the perfect blend of efficiency and good humor. Sam, our translator, is invaluable, translating almost simultaneously. The children are curious, playful and have a strikingly mature ability to comprehend and retain information. Our biggest concern with Party Scene is that the children’s impeccable training might keep them from being natural onstage. We keep telling them not to stand in first position, not to run with pointed feet, not to stand in a straight line—all the things that are usually so hard to get children to do!

 

At 10 pm, I took our little Marie to another studio to show her the Transition Scene, just the two of us. Will this sweet child be too tired and overwhelmed to understand and retain what I’m showing? No, she is trained to focus, and she understands when I explain that she is dreaming of huge mice, an enormous Christmas tree and a life-size nutcracker doll who turns into a prince, even with no props or scenery to illustrate.

 

DAY TWO:

 

This afternoon we met with Professor Sun-Hee Kim, the director of KNU’s ballet division, and the two teachers who will rehearse the children after we leave. We stressed to them that the children should act naturally and dance cleanly, without pretension or affectation. The training at KNU emphasizes classical virtuosity and the students enter competitions from a very young age. (In fact, they keep asking if the Polichinelles and Candy Canes could do their dances on pointe. I compliment their technique but insist that Mr. Balanchine wanted the children to dance in soft slippers.)

 

Now, it’s back to the studio for more Party and Battle, with Kevin working as quickly as he can while I nervously watch the clock. Realizing that teaching Act 2’s “pure dance” sections will be much more straightforward than staging Act 1, helps keep my anxiety in check. I hope I’ll be able to get through it all tomorrow, our last day.

 

DAY THREE:

 

We begin with the angels, who are not from KNU (whose youngest students are 10 and therefore too tall). Their studio is infinitely smaller than the Opera House stage, and I wonder if it will be difficult to get young kids to adapt to the larger space. Also the 12 little girls in various fairy/ballerina costumes have little interest in learning counts or staying in lines. It takes six adults to herd them into proper formations while our interpreter calls out counts. After 90 minutes we have to leave with a sense of a job unfinished.

Gavin Larsen prepared Korean dancers for Nutcracker roles in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production.

 

Candy Cane rehearsal, however, goes extremely well. These are the most advanced students, and as I’d anticipated, the challenge here is getting the lunges bigger, balances deeper, chins lifted higher, more épaulement, spark and energy. I think my urgings make the girls feel less in control of their technique, but I catch a glimpse of joy on a few faces.

Meanwhile Kevin valiantly forges ahead with Party and Battle, despite missing a translator and several children. Since we have only one studio, I take my two Chinese Tea dancers into a corner to teach them their dance. I am again amazed at how much they grasp. Their eagerness to move faster, curve their necks and torsos and lift their knees higher in passé is a beautiful thing to see. I’m pushing them out of their comfort zones but they seem unafraid.

 

At 10 pm I begin to teach Polichinelles. Though tired, the kids seem to have inexhaustible minds and pick up the construction of the choreography like professionals. I’m amused to see the boys automatically change the pique arabesque, chassé, tour jeté step into something that looks like a classical male variation, all bravura and manliness. They comply, with some curiosity and confusion, when I have them do a simple chassé tour jeté like the girls. These young boys are bred to become princes, and I am asking them to simply be dancers.

 

What a day! Our whirlwind crash course in Balanchine has come to an end. I feel a strong camaraderie with this group and their thirst for interaction with the global dance community. We will return in two months to put on the finishing touches before the students appear onstage with OBT. I look forward to reconnecting with my Korean friends. The culture of dance is the one we share, the language we all speak and the bond that links us all.

 

POSTSCRIPT:

 

In early August, Kevin, Thyra and I returned to Seoul to oversee the final rehearsals before the OBT dancers arrived a few days later for 10 performances of The Nutcracker. (I performed the role of Marie’s mother, Frau Stahlbaum.) The ballet looked very clean and well-rehearsed, and as we coaxed the children away from rote execution of the steps, they embraced this freedom and their dancing blossomed. Our Marie and Prince turned into wonderful little actors, and the OBT dancers were immensely impressed with all the kids’ clean technique and professionalism. By the end of the run, the bonds we had formed with the students and their teachers deepened even further, and as we sadly said good-bye, we expressed the hope that this collaboration was only the beginning. DT

 

Photos by Thrya Hartshorn, courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre

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