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Becoming 'The Nutcracker'

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009

The queen of the snow, a tasty chocolate from Spain, a sweet plum fairy, and a giant mouse; what could they possibly have in common? They are a tiny portion of the characters that Juneau Dance Unlimited will bring to life in "The Nutcracker."

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"When I step into the costume I try to see or seem the part," 14-year-old JDU principle dancer Kiana Ford said as she placed her foot on a ballet barre. The fact that the barre was two inches above her head was inconsequential and she grasped her pointe shoe, pulling her foot perfectly vertical. "I just try to do my image of the part, what makes me smile inside."

What makes Ford smile is a process not seen by the audience. She has attended the Joffrey Ballet's summer program in Chicago, plans to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and the American Ballet Theatre in New York, and would love to dance with the San Francisco Ballet. A life in ballet, no matter the age, is still a life of dance and work; dance and practice; and more dance... and if you have a chance to relax you watch more dance.

"I constantly watch videos on YouTube of other performers doing my part," Ford said. "I watch any professional ballets I can, any performances, study any photo... I just love being around dance."

Ford has been dancing since she was three, and like many of JDU's principle dancers she worked her way up the ranks, from playing little Clara in her first Nutcracker Christmas program at age eight, to four of the top solos in this years production. Ford appears as the Dancing Ballerina Doll during the holiday party scene, shares a duet with Madison Truitt as Merlitons in The Magic Castle On the Mountain of Sweets, and leads the Waltz Of The Flowers as the Dew Drop Fairy.

Yet the "Nutcracker" role that is most commonly associated with this particular ballet, that captures the imagination of tiny eyes, holds the dreams of aspiring dancers, and revisits the youthful remembrances of aging choreographers is the wintry white dance of snowflakes just before Intermission. It is in this dance that Ford shines.

"I love Snow Queen, it's so fun and you just feel so free," Ford said. "I think of icicles. I didn't enjoy being Clara. I am more of the dancing type, not the acting type. Every year I watch the dancers who do Snow Queen, here on stage and in professional ballets, and I just try to make it the best I can do."

What allows Ford to do her best, besides her work ethic, is the performances of those around her.

Misha Culver, 13, is an eight-year JDU dancer and in her fourth "Nutcracker." Culver brings an equal amount of talent to her roles as a principle dancer. She'll join Ford on stage as snow and a flower and is featured as a Soldier Doll in the party scene. Yet it will be in the magic castle that Culver will be showcased, presenting one of the most interpretive Spanish Chocolate numbers in JDU's five-year holiday affair.

"I like Spanish Chocolate," Culver said. "Its more my personality and I get to do more leaps and everything. I've been soldiers, polichinelles (clowns), and angels, but I was really young.... I'm really excited."

Guest artists Kristie Cordle-Infante and Viataliy Nechay of San Diego's California Ballet Co. will perform two primary dance parts, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. They will dance a pas de deux, solos, coda and then in the grande finale. The JDU troupe will provide the remaining main roles.

Madison Truitt, 13, has been dancing since age four and is in her third "Nutcracker." She also will be in the duet Merliton dance with Ford and as snow and flowers. She has also earned the Arabian Coffee solo.

"Everything is so slow and extended," Truitt said. "And it has to be very precise, very slow and sultry. It's just kind of hard to do that. I just think of the next move I have to do while I am interpreting. I kind of think Princess Leah, that's how I get into it. This is way more advanced than I did my first year in the party scene."

Truitt will also join with sister Marissa Truitt, Culver, and Gabrielle Duvernay in the snow dance, and with Duvernay, Culver, and Darian Perov as flowers. Duvernay will be the focal point in Chinese Tea with Perov and Marissa Truitt as well.

The hardest "acting" part will fall on 12-year-old Anouk Otsea, a JDU dancer for nine years and in her fifth "Nutcracker." She will be Clara, a role also called Marie or Masha depending on which historical version of the ballet is interpreted.

"The Clara part goes on through the whole ballet," Otsea said. "The hardest part is you have to do a lot of acting and in one of the scenes, the battle scene, you have to act scared... but the mice are so cute I want to laugh."

Otsea will dance with artistic director Janis Hurley (maid) and Kara Sepel (Fritz) and with the Nutcracker Prince. The prince is Mexican native Luis Torreblanca, 30 years young and in his sixth year with JDU.

Also cast is 64-year-old Bob Fagen as Mother Ginger, who just enjoys being on stage with the inspiring dancers. Said Fagen, "Once you learn it its like a bicycle, it becomes a part of you."

Choreographer Joseph Schnell, 45, has been with JDU a little over a year, and repeats his role as Herr Drosselmeyer. He danced with the Joffrey Ballet in New York for 13 years, earning a title as a principle dancer, then next joined Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet as a soloist for seven years.

"I'm in love with dance," Schnell said. "I tell the kids that its hard work and to get some enjoyment out of it, have some fun in it... but also do the job and get it correct, that's basically it."

As a principle he never did Drosselmeyer, as it was more for older character dancers.

"I was doing the young jumping around kind of stuff... now I can act a bit more... its great to be on stage, I love it."

As the last dress rehearsal came to an end Sunday and tiny tutus were wrapped in larger warm coats and hustled out into waiting cars, a studio light remained on. Two dancers, still in costume, stretched their sinewy lengths of muscle on the studio floor.

"I'm really having fun today," Misha Culver said. "Its fun to just dance in the performance because we have worked so hard, this is the pay off..."

"I just love the entire theme of Nutcracker," replied Kiana Ford. "I just think it is so fun and festive for the holidays and it's a great thing to do for a small studio like us."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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