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The holiday ballet is a rite of passage for many young dancers
 

BY DANA OLAND 
Idaho Statesmen
Published: 12/06/09

 

 Last year, Sebastian Houk danced the roles of Soldier and a “mini-Russian variation” in Ballet Idaho’s “The Nutcracker.” This year, he will be the the ultimate bratty little brother, Fritz, who terrorizes his sister Clara during a family Christmas party. “My favorite part is when I get carried off stage, kicking and screaming. That’s fun,” he said.

What’s even more fun is that for some of the performances this year, he gets to perform opposite his real-life sister, Brenna, 11.  As far as anyone can remember, this is the first time an actual brother and sister have played the roles for Ballet Idaho. “It’s fun. I get in trouble a lot for being mean to her, but at least it’s not with my real parents so I don’t really get in trouble,” Sebastian said.

 

AN AMERICAN HOLIDAY TRADITION

The magical ballet about a young girl who saves the day with her Nutcracker Prince and travels to the Land of the Sweets is an enduring American tradition. It comes in a nearly endless array of interpretations in hundreds of productions across the country.

It is based on the Alexander Dumas’s adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story. The ballet was originally performed at the Maryansky Theatre in 1892. San Francisco Ballet did the first full-length American “Nutcracker” in 1944, but it was George Balanchine’s 1954 production for New York City Ballet that popularized it into an annual tradition.

 

IT’S A CHILDREN’S BALLET

Each production comes with performances by a passel of children who will dance everything from Claras and Fritzes to Bon Bons and Lady Bugs, Angels and Chinese lion dancers to mini versions of the adult variations. In the three productions you can see this season, more than 200 Treasure Valley kids will dance in a “Nutcracker.”

Many of the Ballet Idaho’s principle dancers started as “Nutcracker” kids. Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti danced her first “Nutcracker” at 16 as a Snowflake.

“I feel responsible to make sure the kids are having fun, and they see that I’m having fun as well,” Affrunti said.

 

A DREAM COME TRUE

Today, Cristina Zimmerman, 11, who will share the role of Clara with Brenna, dreams of someday dancing the Snow Queen. Brenna would love to be the Sugar Plum Fairy.

When Ballet Idaho artistic director Anastos first staged this production last season, he opened up the role of Clara to young dancers. In the previous production, a company dancer danced the role.

Last season’s Claras were in their teens. This year, they’re both 11. Costumer Lito-John Demetita had to make new dresses for them because they were so much smaller.

This moment is a dream come true for Cristina. “When I was a little girl – this is cheesy stuff, I know – but I’ve always wanted to be Clara, and this has been a really big honor for me,” she said. Brenna smiles in agreement.

The two young dancers approach the role in distinct ways, Anastos said. “Brenna is more sweet and naive, and that’s Clara. Cristina is very dramatic and that’s another way to do the role,” he said. “I’m so glad I have two girls who are so different.”

Like the grown up ballerinas who will share the three lead roles of Snow, Dew Drop and the Sugar Plum Fairy, they each give their own interpretation. “It’s great to have children doing that, too. And it teaches them they don’t have to imitate. You have to be yourself,” Anastos said.

Sebastian is the only Fritz; he will dance with both Brenna and Cristina.

“Pressure? I feel some pressure, but not much and when we work with the company members it’s really fun,” said Sebastian, an Adams Elementary fifth-grader. “I love dancing but not when my muscles get tight and sore and stuff.” \

All three kids are in the Ballet Idaho Youth Ensemble and take class and rehearse three days a week.

Cristina, who is in sixth grade at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, started dancing at 2; Brenna, an Adams’ sixth-grader, started when she was 3.

Three years ago, she took Sebastian with her for “bring a friend week” at the academy, and he was hooked. “He used to play soccer, but now ballet rules,” their mother, Julie Houk, said. “They’re all very dedicated,” Anastos said.

 

A SERIOUS TRAINING PROGRAM

Part of that commitment comes from a restructuring of the Ballet Idaho dance academy this year to become once again a serious pre-professional training program. It had drifted away from that more strict idea after directors Jeff and Cathy Giese and Lisa Moon left in 2005 and formed Eagle Performing Arts Center.

Anastos’ changes to the academy are reflected in a more stringent rehearsal schedule for “Nutcracker,” from one day a week last year, to two this year. “Doing anything one day a week is not going to get you very far, whether it’s swimming or ballet,” he said. “‘Nutcracker’ can’t be recreational if you want to do it well. You’re going to be at the Morrison Center performing for 2,000 people. The children aren’t professional, but they need to learn professional ethics.”

Families like the Houks are absorbing the bigger responsibly. “It’s a big commitment for the whole family,” Julie Houk said. She now finds herself volunteering to help at the studio’s front desk, driving kids to performances and carting costumes on occasion.

“Peter wants to prepare these young dancers to potentially become company members,” she said. “But they also learning more than just about dance. They are helping to create ladies and gentlemen, as well as dancers.”

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