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Dance for the ages: For many young ballet dancers, the annual 'Nutcracker' is a rite of passage

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 28, 2014

On a gloomy Saturday earlier this month, at an hour when many Anchorage kids were satisfied to kick back at home, some of their peers were hard at work in the studios of Alaska Dance Theatre. They strutted, jumped, ran and mimed through the party scene from Act 1 of "The Nutcracker," preparing for the annual performances of Tchaikovsky's ballet in Atwood Concert Hall.

Bill and Diana Schildbach, parents of dancer Bailey Schildbach, picked up their tech packets, containing schedules and instructions, then waited in the viewing area outside the studio while instructor Erika Sander ran the dancers through their paces.

Diana described her daughter as "very quiet, studious and serious." She'd taken to dance as a small girl in the Lower 48, before the family moved to the Yukon River village of Emmonak, where her father was the school principal.

"I had to stop for five years," said Bailey, an eighth-grader. But not entirely. She jumped in with the Yup'ik dancers and performed at potlatches. When the family moved to Anchorage, "I was longing to start again," she said.

The Schildbachs involved themselves with regular theater performances at Alaska Theatre of Youth, an invaluable experience, said Bill. "A lot of the skills are transferable: knowing how to present yourself on stage, how to hit your mark, how to get off stage, working as a team."

But Bailey wanted to dance. "It makes me feel free," she said.

"It was a deep-seated desire we didn't even know she had," said Diane. "She practices all the time. She was practicing in the aisles at Home Depot -- pirouettes near the hammers."

"We've gotten to where we just ignore her," said Bill, laughing.

This will be her second "Nutcracker." In last year's production by Cincinnati Ballet, she was a soldier. In this year's version by Eugene Ballet, she's a "party girl." Mom and Dad are dutifully volunteering backstage, where parents have tasks like helping with costumes and chaperoning young dancers from dressing rooms to stage and back -- "herding mice" is how Diane put it.

Each year the Anchorage Concert Association presents productions by national ballet troupes, who supply sets, choreography and professional dancers for major roles. These shows tend to tour during the lead-up to Christmas. The Eugene production, returning to Anchorage after three years, will be seen with different performers in 15 cities in five states. It has two sizes of sets to fit diverse venues; the big Atwood stage uses the larger of the two.

There are lots of parts for dancers in training. "The kids are not a small part of the show," said ADT instructor Sari Phillips. "They're a huge part."

Children as young as five or six can go on as "baby mice." "They're only on stage for 45 seconds, but they steal the show every time," said Toni Pimble, the artistic director of Eugene Ballet. There are also, depending on the production, troupes of toy soldiers, snowflakes, angels, Chinese lion dancers, assorted critters, gumdrops and other confections.

Working with very young performers has perils, Pimble said. "One year we had a little angel pee on stage. The dancers spent most of the second act trying to avoid the puddle. But if they're well-rehearsed then we can get them working onstage and it usually goes pretty smoothly."

Being the right size to fit into a particular costume can be the critical consideration. Older girls who are strong enough to dance en pointe -- that is, on their toes using special pointe shoes -- may perform in the "Waltz of the Flowers."

The longest single scene in most productions is the Christmas party that opens the show. (The bulk of the second act is broken into several solo and ensemble "character dances," like the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," for mature, expert dancers.) The party features several girls and boys who are on stage the whole time and have to know what they're doing at any given point. (The boy parts are commonly danced by girls, since dance students are overwhelmingly female.)

By the time dancers get cast in the party scene, they tend to already have years of lessons, more than one "Nutcracker" in their portfolio and -- most important -- a love of the art. The chance to take part in the seasonal ballet fires them up on several levels.

"Being side by side with professionals is, like, magical for them," said Phillips. "The interaction with professionals on and off stage is phenomenal; you're not treated any differently just because you're a kid. They know Atwood is the biggest stage in town, that the audience is paying to see the show and they want to do as good a job as they can."

"The more experience you have, the better it is when you're auditioning for a school or a job in the real world," said Jenni Mills, an ADT instructor who herself danced Anchorage "Nutcrackers" from age nine to 17.

"Ballet West, Cincinnati Ballet, those are big names," she said. "Having them on your resume catches people's eyes. As a teacher, I still list all the 'Nutcrackers' I did on my bio. We're very lucky to be able to work with these companies."

Bill Shildbach agreed with her. "Here in Anchorage we have access to such a level of experience that you wouldn't have elsewhere. The opportunity to train with professionals is absolutely thrilling (for Bailey), like a dream for her."

And the dream goes on. Bailey was strapped into pointe shoes for the first time last month.

We spoke with several of her fellow party girls and "boys" after a 90-minute rehearsal. Here's some of what some of them had to say. Names are followed by grade level, years dancing and number of "Nutcrackers" in which they've performed, including this month's production.

Rose Montgomery-Webb: 11th grade, 12 years dancing, 8 "Nutcrackers"

"I did gymnastics but switched to dance and got really stuck on it. I can't see myself not doing it. When I graduate I plan to audition for dance companies. I can go back and get a college degree any time."

Note: Montgomery-Webb has the role of the mischief-making Fritz in all performances.

Gillian Doty: 7th grade, 7 years dancing, 5 "Nutcrackers"

"My Grandma and a cousin were dancers, so it's in the family. I've been an angel, a party girl, a lion dancer and a chicken."

Note: The chicken was featured in last year's "Nutcracker." It is not in the Eugene Ballet version.

Adrianna Garby: 8th grade, 9 years dancing, 1 "Nutcracker"

"I got interested in ballet because I was interested in the tutus. With dance I can express things you can't get out in a normal way."

Loloma Johnston: 6th grade, 5 years dancing, 2 "Nutcrackers"

"Last year I was a lion dancer. This year I'm feeling more prepared. I wanted to do ballet when I saw a poster in second grade. I like it because I can be somebody I'm not."

Emily Triggs: 8th grade, 10 years dancing, 4 "Nutcrackers"

"My mom stuck me in dance class. I don't think I'd expressed any interest, but I loved what the ballet body looked like. I can be somebody different, a wild monster. When I'm going as a party boy, I learn how to move differently, how to be a man, which I am not."

Alyssa O'Neal: 5th grade, 7 years dancing, 2 "Nutcrackers"

"My mom was a dancer. She always took us to 'The Nutcracker' and it always got me wiggling in my seat. That's how she knew I wanted to dance."

Vivienne Bennett: 6th grade, 6 years dancing, 1 "Nutcracker"

"One day I was riding in the car and I said, 'Mom, I want to be in 'The Nutcracker.'' It's cool to be in an actual production instead of just a student showcase. Before I go on stage I get nervous because I don't want to make a fool out of myself. When I get on stage, I forget all that."

Luba Wessels: 7th grade, 10 years dancing, 7 "Nutcrackers"

"It's fun because you get a different part every year. I've been a mouse, angel, dragon, soldier, party boy. Oh, and the chicken. That costume had, like, five layers. It was extremely hot."

Samantha Wanner: 10th grade, 12 years dancing, 2 "Nutcrackers"

"I like the way it makes me feel alive. You can be in the moment. You don't have to think about it. You slide across the stage and it's so magical to see the way it all comes to life."

Kristina Yu: 7th grade, 9 years dancing, 4 "Nutcrackers"

"I wanted to be a ballerina when my dad showed me pictures of one. She was so pretty and poised and princessy. At first I was kind of scared about dancing in Atwood; it's so big. But after a while it was like home."

Grace Straughn: 7th grade, 7 years dancing, 4 "Nutcrackers"

"My parents signed me up for soccer, but I just didn't like it. So they sent me to an arts camp and the leader suggested dancing lessons. It makes me feel good, a time of connection. I have to come in from Wasilla for rehearsals. It's a long drive, but it's worth it. I enjoy the part of a party girl but I'd like to do the 'Waltz of the Flowers' once I'm en pointe."

Adrienne Butler: 10th grade, 4 years dancing, 3 "Nutcrackers"

"Mom put me in dance class after we moved here from Indiana. I thought I'd hate it. But the teacher was amazing. The class was amazing. I fell in love with it. It's been my passion ever since. I'm a party boy and it's really fun to interact with Fritz. Rosie (Montgomery-Webb) is such a great actress that it makes me get into my part. Working in an ensemble is tricky. You have to blend in, but still stand out, if that makes sense."

Liv Orton: 8th grade, 9 years, 2 "Nutcrackers."

"I watched 'The Nutcracker' when I was three or four years old. It's the reason I started dancing. I saw the Sugar Plum Fairy and wanted to be that person. It's a cool experience to be part of such a big production, to dance with professionals. You learn so much. I want to be like them."

Khrysalynn Howard: 12th grade, 13 years dancing, 1 "Nutcracker"

"I have four brothers. My mom said, 'You need to do something so people can tell you apart.' I was four years old and just lit up in my first class. I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. This is my first 'Nutcracker' because I didn't know you could audition for it until I learned about it from a friend. I'm still nervous about being in a professional production. It's an out-of-this-world experience. I want to keep doing it and work on my own choreography."

THE NUTCRACKER, presented by the Anchorage Concert Association, a production of Eugene Ballet, will take place at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

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