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For the First Time Ever, Dayton Ballet Has a Female Nutcracker

Courtesy Dayton Ballet

A few months ago, Dayton Ballet's artistic director, Karen Russo Burke, approached Miranda Dafoe with an unorthodox idea: She wanted to cast a woman in the role of the Nutcracker in the company's holiday production, and she was tapping Dafoe.

"I honestly was pretty shocked," says the Dayton Ballet dancer. "But the more I thought about it, I thought, You know what? Clara's dreaming the whole thing from the battle into the Land of the Sweets. So why can't she dream of a woman saving her from the rats and taking her on this journey?"


A performance image of the Nutcracker in front of Clara. Each are doing an arabesque in an opposite direction of the other.

Dafoe as the Nutcracker, with Chelsea Brecht as Clara

Courtesy Dayton Ballet

Not only does Dafoe like the message it sends to girls in the audience, but, she says, "it shows that we're evolving our Nutcracker based on how society is evolving too."

Dayton Ballet's production, which continues through December 23, features two casts—one of which has a male Nutcracker, and one with a female Nutcracker. That meant making slight modifications to the character's choreography and costume. "Some of the musicality had more time for jumps, so Karen and I worked together to figure out jumps and turns that would read as strong but also feminine," says Dafoe.

"I'm still wearing the Nut head," she laughs, noting the difficulties of dancing with such an unwieldy costume piece. Hers, though, doesn't have a beard, which keeps her identity more ambiguous. Unless the audience has read the program beforehand, Dafoe says, they may not realize the Nutcracker is played by a woman until the end of the Battle Scene. Her Nutcracker head comes off, unveiling her flowing hair.

Dafoe walks down stairs, while wearing warm-up clothes and holding the Nutcracker head.

Courtesy Dayton Ballet

In Dayton Ballet's version, Clara is played by a dancer from its school, and the choreography doesn't involve partnering between her and the Nutcracker. "I thought a lot about how I wanted to approach the relationship," says Dafoe, "and I settled on it being motherly and a role model, but also sisterly. I want it to be relatable to Clara and also to young girls in the audience." As she holds Clara's hand, leading her through the Snow Scene and Land of the Sweets, Dafoe says, "I'm also a little giddy and excited too. I'm not just this adult in her world."

In addition to the message of female empowerment, Burke also wanted the role to nod to women in the military.

Overall, Dafoe sees the production as a reflection of what Dayton has been through. "We had a big tornado last spring, and also the shooting in the Oregon District. We're so grateful for our police officers." In the Battle Scene, prop guns were traded out for candy canes. "We're really conscious of what's going on in the community, and we want our audience to feel that. Not only are we following the feminist movement, but we wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that we went through this big trauma," she says.

Though this debut is daunting and exciting for Dafoe, ultimately, she's in favor of the gender swap. "I'm hoping that other companies are inspired to evolve their Nutcracker similarly—or in a different way—just so that it can be more accessible," she says. "Ballet can be a bit overwhelming or people can be afraid to go. But it's a lot more relatable than you'd think. As long as we can reach a bigger audience, that's what I'm here for."

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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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