Nutcracker w/ New Wrinkles

Who is this guy? Anyone have a clue?

Nutcracker productions are thick on the ground this time of year and we’ve seen and written about many of them in years past. Can a local company bring something fresh to this seasonal pageant? And what can we your friendly dance journalists find to say that we haven’t said many times before? We drove down to Cleveland Ballet’s studios on Miles Road to watch rehearsals and talk to some of the dancers. There we learned that Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker has all new costumes and sets this year as well as some other new wrinkles. Along the way, we found a new appreciation for this holiday chestnut and the people who perform in it.

First, we watched as 3 couples took turns dancing the Grand Pas; each couple in its own way seemed a perfect embodiment of the music and the choreography. Founding company member Lauren Stenroos directed the rehearsal with a light touch and a voice so soft we could seldom make out what she said; dancers nodded in agreement, smoothed out difficulties, and moved on.

Then the corps de ballet came onto the floor to rehearse the snow scene. Despite all the Nutcrackers we’ve seen, we had never before stopped to think how difficult it must be to dance to the fast flurries of musical notes that suddenly come out of nowhere. Lauren played crucial musical passages several times so the dancers could better understand exactly when to start. They counted to the music. They danced it several times before moving on. They repeated the process for each of the “flurries,” the piqué turns, the passés, and the emboîtés. And before the final run through of the day, some of the dancers added notes of their own such as, “When you hold the snow, shape your hands like this, not that.” Lots of details.

Later we sat down with Lauren and Chelsea Endris, who is in her first season at Cleveland Ballet.

Lauren: The snow scene is very iconic. There’s a lot of fast footwork, fast jumping; you have to be swirling around exactly together with the person to the front of you, the person to the side of you. Meanwhile, the music has a lot of syncopation in it so dancers have to count. With all these details, the snow scene is one of the most complicated to rehearse. So, you saw us dissecting everything and cleaning it so when we start doing run-throughs there are fewer problems.

Lauren Stenroos in white

Cleveland Concert Dance: What would you call that first step that you all do?

Lauren: It’s a traveling pas de basque. The step has 3 components so you could count it 1 2 3 4 5 6 or 1 2 3 2 2 3. You could count it many ways. But it’s very fast. And your job is to make it look effortless.

CCD: Like snowflakes blown about by the wind. But that turns out to be much harder than it sounds.

Chelsea: One of the challenges of being in the corps de ballet is that you have to work together. That’s not easy when you have 12 different people who interpret music differently and who are doing an art that’s very subjective. As weird as it sounds, the more we practice breathing together as a group, the more we get there together.

CCD: Nutcracker usually includes children, young ballet students. The Nutcracker provides them with valuable stage experience and it attracts their parents and relatives to performances. Are there kids in this Nutcracker?

Lauren: Yes. There are kids in the party scene. In the battle scene they are mice. They are angels. And dancers from the upper level of the school, the trainees, are in snow scene. And in the Russian – sorry, the Ukrainian variation…

CCD: Russian? Ukrainian? Please explain.

Lauren: Markian Komichak, our character dance teacher, is originally from Ukraine so he has adjusted the choreography this year and we’ve ordered brand new costumes to interpret and reflect Ukrainian culture and style. In the past it was a Russian variation but, moving forward, Cleveland Ballet is a big supporter of Ukraine. A lot of our staff and dancers are from the Ukraine. Our founder, Michael Krasnyansky, is from Odessa in the Ukraine. We’ve done fund raisers and benefits for Ukraine and sent thousands of dollars and donated goods.

CCD: (After the interview Julia Tze, who is Cleveland Ballet’s Marketing Manager as well as a dancer in the company, sent us a press release from last May describing Cleveland Ballet’s efforts on behalf of Ukraine.

Mission to Ukraine is a non-profit organization primarily working in Zhytomyr and the surrounding region that aims to help children with disabilities and their families by providing them with social and medical rehabilitation. At any one time, the organization cares for 250 children that lack basic assistance in things such as schooling, medical care, and employment.

If you wish to contribute, go to https://missiontoukraine-bloom.kindful.com/.)

CCD: That’s a big change whose time has come. What else is new?

Lauren: There is something else. Every year Ms. Guadalupe puts in something different, something new. But the audience will have to wait and see.

CCD: So, no spoiler?

Lauren: We’re not at liberty to reveal.

The Mouse King’s head, part of one of the new costumes.

CCD: Ok. Another thing we often notice about Nutcracker is that the number of performances forces companies to give more dancers an opportunity to dance prominent roles.

Chelsea: With 30-some dancers, Cleveland Ballet is not a small company but in order to cast 7 shows without over taxing the dancers you’ll see many people performing a different role every night. The dancers who do Caroline and the Nutcracker Prince one night might do Sugar Plum and Cavalier another night. Or Ukrainian one night and China variation another. Casting is constantly rotating to give more people opportunities.

CCD: Something else we’ve been curious about. What brought you here? The city? The company?

Lauren: I grew up in Bath, Ohio which is between Cleveland and Akron. I trained here, went to college, danced professionally elsewhere for 8 years, and then Cleveland Ballet was starting up and I was looking for another place to dance so I auditioned and Gladisa hired me.

CCD: Where else did you dance?

Lauren: I was a trainee at Nashville Ballet and then I was a company member at Dayton Ballet before I came here.

Chelsea: I’m from Indiana, close to Louisville, Ky. Not too far from here. I grew up dancing. My mother owns her own dance studio so my sister and I just went in it the whole shebang. I went to college for dance and then after college I got one professional job in a very small ballet company, Montgomery Ballet, and then I went to Manassas Ballet Theatre where I met my fiancé. He was the person who found Cleveland Ballet. This past year my fiancé and I were very upset with our current company, ready for change, so when he contacted Cleveland Ballet they said, “Let’s set up an audition.” Cleveland Ballet had already told me that they had no openings for female dancers so I just went along to support him. But on the first combination, they were only watching me. They had already hired him but he didn’t tell me they were auditioning me because he didn’t want to stress me out. So they hired me.

So, was it all a dream?

CCD: We hear that Cleveland Ballet will be performing Balanchine’s Serenade in April. Did that influence either of you in your decision to stay here or to come here?

Lauren: For me, seeing this company starting from 5 dancers and growing to where it is now has been incredible. And I know that one of Gladisa’s goals – coming from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet as she does — has been to get some Balanchine repertoire. So the fact that we’re doing Serenade is a huge honor for this company and it’s so exciting for me. This is the first Balanchine ballet that we’ve ever gotten the rights to do.

I did Serenade when I was 18 at Chautauqua. Patti McBride set it on us. Once you’ve been coached by someone like that, you remember the choreography. It’s in your body. This is going to push our company to grow, because Balanchine is so amazing to dance and he’s so musical. The choreography is in the music. And it was Balanchine’s first ballet in America so it’s cool that it’s our first Balanchine ballet.

Deborah Wingert, a repetiteur for the Balanchine Trust, was here two weeks after Swan Lake and she cast the ballet, set it on us, and coached us. We’ll do some zoom rehearsals with her in the future since the performance isn’t until April. The fact that we’re doing this is just incredible.

Chelsea: Serenade is one of the things that brought me here. When we were auditioning, Gladisa told me they would be doing Serenade and I said, “I really hope they hire us.” Unlike Lauren, I’ve never done a full Balanchine work, but when we started rehearsing (Serenade) with Deborah I felt so empowered when she told me that I could do it.

CCD: Everybody wants to dance Balanchine. What else do you like or dislike about Cleveland Ballet?

Lauren: Everybody’s experience and perspective in a company will be different. But Cleveland Ballet is a very wonderful, positive environment where everybody is accepting of each other and there’s no one here who’s a diva. You know, we clap for each other when someone does a good pirouette or something like that.

Chelsea: After 4 years at Manassas Ballet Theatre I was already bored; it was all very linear and predictable. My fiancé and I were looking for challenges and opportunities to grow as artists. At Cleveland Ballet I’ve found opportunities to try new things. I’m not a soloist but the other day I tried the Arabian variation just for fun; it wasn’t the most beautiful thing and it’s good it’s not on stage but in this environment I felt ok trying and laughing with my fellow dancers. It felt like we were all learning and growing together. It’s a safe place to grow, and that’s what I really like.

Cleveland Ballet presents 7 performances of The Nutcracker at the Connor Palace from Thursday 12/15 thru Sunday 12/18. With all new sets and costumes, choreography by Artistic Director Gladisa Guadalupe, and music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Go to https://www.clevelandballet.org/the-nutcracker for a complete synopsis, links to tickets, and further information.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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