TORRANCE — If you are one of those who look forward to the holiday season and enjoy the performing arts, then more than likely you are not a stranger to the timeless story of “The Nutcracker.”
Performed by ballet companies around the world year in and year out, the account of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince is an enchanting tale enjoyed by theater-goers of all ages. And while these two leading characters pour themselves into their roles for audiences, scores of corps de ballet members bring the stage to life with delightful dances and breathtaking feats of their own.
Right here in the Southland, South Bay Ballet’s Nutcracker offers a brilliant example of how corps members have many opportunities to develop their artistry. Whether it is 35 infantry soldiers, 28 little mice, 15 snowflakes, eight gingerbread cookies, seven Russian dancers, four Arabian maidens, or countless others, these corps dancers, under the artistic direction of Diane Lauridsen, work tirelessly to help knit a full-length ballet and have found a place to shine.\
Most of these young people already know that rising to the ranks of prima ballerina or even soloist is an arduous journey and an opportunity that is earned. Given the environment that Lauridsen fosters, it is no wonder that corps members understand this can be a stepping-stone to more challenging roles.
A shining example of Lauridsen’s training philosophy can be seen with South Bay Ballet alumni, Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first female African American soloist.
Copeland was recently quoted in Dance Teacher magazine as saying, “When I was 15, I went to Diane because everyone said I had so much potential. But at her studio, I wasn’t a star and she didn’t treat me like one. I was like anyone else and I appreciate how hard she was on me. I was taking three classes a day: Beginning ballet with five- and six-year-olds, an intermediate class and an advanced class.”
The same holds true for today’s students at Lauridsen Ballet Center. This close-knit company of dancers knows that the lead roles of Clara, danced this year by Yumi Kanazawa, 15, and the Nutcracker Prince, danced by John-Paul Simoens, 17, are well earned. Both principal dancers have been with South Bay Ballet for 10 years, and know that without the corps members, the company is not a company.
“I am so happy, excited and honored to dance Clara this year,” says Kanazawa. “I have been in ‘The Nutcracker’ since I was a Ballet 3 [a training level at Lauridsen Ballet Center]and have danced most all of the corps de ballet roles. I know my friends put in just as much time and effort, and enjoy their stage-time as much as I do. Having grown-up together, we have a respect for one another on and off stage. We have fun and also take our role as mentors with the younger dancers very seriously.”
Simoens echoes these sentiments, reflecting on his years growing up at South Bay Ballet and performing many different parts in “The Nutcracker.” “I have learned that every part has its own challenges whether it is a corps role or a lead role. I am very excited to have the opportunity to perform as the Prince this year. The role is not only a challenge both physically and mentally, but also it requires a graceful and noble quality in the way that I interact with the other dancers on stage.”
While most aspiring ballerinas dream far beyond being a corps member, they come to understand that the experience can be rewarding. Emma Silagy, 13, a relative newbie with just four seasons as a South Bay Ballet company member under her toes, has learned a great deal rising through the ranks and this season is delighted to dance the part of an Arabian maiden.
“Functioning as a part of a larger group in order to create a great piece of art is challenging. It’s important to be on the right counts and that’s why we are taught musicality to better understand the relationship between the choreography and the music,” says Silagy.
Adding to the delight of audiences, the company’s youngest members manage to steal the show playing the roles of bow, button and bell mice. South Bay Ballet’s youngest company member, Ryan Lo, 4, will perform for the first time as a mouse. When questioned what the best part of being on stage is, he says he’s excited to be on stage “to dance like soldiers and to scare the monsters,” referring to the ballet’s dramatic Act One battle scene.
As an added highlight, each year South Bay Ballet’s “Nutcracker” features a notable community member in the guest role of Grandmother Clara. This year, Masako Kagasaki shares the stage with these pre-professional dancers to delight audiences in three performances. Kagasaki is the executive editor of Bridge U.S.A., a popular Japanese-language magazine in the South Bay and Greater Los Angeles area.
Whether family, friend or acquaintance, you are more than likely to know one of South Bay Ballet’s cast of 100. If you have yet to discover the magic of this classical ballet, or make it an annual tradition, catch the performances on Friday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 17 and 18, at 2 p.m. at El Camino College’s Marsee Auditorium, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance. Tickets are $30 general, $20 children 12 and under. Phone (800) 832-2787 or go to www.centerforthearts.org.
For additional information or to become a friend of South Bay Ballet, visit www.southbayballet.org.