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OC's Ballet Moment: ABT's ‘Nutcracker' finds a home in Costa Mesa

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Segerstrom Center's Judith Morr with “Nutcracker” choreographer and ABT artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.
Doug Gifford

On a Saturday morning in a backstage rehearsal room at Segerstrom Hall, 16 toy soldiers are marching in backward formation, morphing from two parallel lines into two rotating pinwheels. Though the outside girls are scrambling to keep in formation, and a stack of toy rifles in the corner slides noisily to the ground, the hushed group does not break focus. This October morning is day one, hour one of rehearsal for American Ballet Theatre’s inaugural season of “The Nutcracker” in Costa Mesa, and quite the firing shot was just issued.

Only an hour earlier, the ballet world’s preeminent choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and now artist-in-residence at ABT, had been in this very room, and his scent – or something like it – seems to linger in the space. Flown in from La Scala in Milan for a 24-hour visit, Ratmansky had just viewed 100 children auditioning for leading and supporting children’s roles for the upcoming West Coast premiere of his $5 million “Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Hall.

“With Ratmansky around today, there is a very, very strong sense of excitement,” explains Alaine Haubert, a former ABT dancer turned master teacher and education director. “Which is translating into the students paying attention very well.”

Much more than just a community-casting event, the elevated activity in this rehearsal room signifies the inspiring synchronicity of two major institutions being seeded at Segerstrom this fall. Balletomanes practically had to rub their eyes over the news this past year that ABT was permanently moving its annual Ratmansky “Nutcracker” from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and concurrently starting a West Coast branch of its education division, also to be housed at the Costa Mesa arts center. Students at the new American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School, headed by principal Haubert, would come to fuel all manner of professional performances at the center, by ABT and other touring troupes.  

News of exclusive ABT events is hardly surprising to Segerstrom audiences. In two decades of presenting the company, Segerstrom Executive Vice President Judith Morr has made the generously proportioned and well-outfitted opera hall available to ABT for technical rehearsals and film shootings during extended visits, something simply unattainable in New York. Since the center’s 1986 opening, the company has appeared in Costa Mesa 23 times, including two film tapings for PBS and the recent heralded world premieres of Ratmansky’s “The Firebird” (2012) and “The Sleeping Beauty” (2015). On the education front, Segerstrom has also quietly been producing ABT’s smaller, residential Summer Initiatives program (housed at UC Irvine) for 15 years.

But no preceding news comes close to this year’s double bombshell. In the initial press announcement, arts champion Gillespie, whose unspecified donation to the school is rumored in the seven figures, acknowledged the cumulative power of this two-part enterprise: “This is an exciting and, in many ways, precedent-setting arts collaboration that has far-reaching potential for the future of dance in Southern California and beyond,” he said.

The deepening relations between Costa Mesa and New York occur at a peak time for the historic company: Celebrating its 75th year, the entity is both artistically and financially hopeful thanks to Ratmansky’s choreographic prowess and ABT trustee David H. Koch’s ongoing support for new ballets. As well, superstar dancers, including San Pedro-raised Misty Copeland, named the first black principal to a classical ballet company earlier this year, help put ABT ahead of rival New York City Ballet for national attention these days.

Speaking in early fall from the company’s offices in a revamped Manhattan manufacturing building on lower Broadway, artistic director Kevin McKenzie – currently interim executive director as well – describes an “organic” development between Segerstrom and ABT that arose from “loyal presenters becoming a formal partnership.” McKenzie points to ABT’s origins as an American touring company. “We’re a national ballet company,” he says. “It makes sense that we be not just in New York.”

Though the company’s recent foray to Brooklyn was ultimately ill-fitting – ABT had difficulty meeting the lower pricing structure required for BAM’s more avant-garde inclined clientele, McKenzie explains – Ratmansky’s exhilarating “Nutcracker” certainly emerged as ABT’s strongest contender yet to “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” New York City Ballet’s definitive version of the classic holiday fairy tale.

The St. Petersburg-born Ratmansky hadn’t previously had the chance to choreograph the Tchaikovsky tale from scratch, McKenzie explains, and the prolific artist quickly poured forth a version McKenzie describes as both “terribly poetic” and “exotic, cacophonous.” Rather than create confectionary, innocuous lands of Snow and Sweets, the choreographer deftly employed scenic and costume designs by Richard Hudson (“The Lion King,” ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty”) and lighting by Jennifer Tipton to create a sort of upturned, Oz-like dream of stormy winter and delirious enchantments. Comparing it with Balanchine’s version, Marina Harss, writing for DanceTabs, called the Ratmansky story “brighter, stranger, less perfect and more mysterious.”

As soon as news broke of the Segerstrom move, several New York critics conceded that the boxy BAM stage had been cramped and that Segerstrom would improve the display of Hudson’s fantastical Biedermeier-era tableaux and the detailed, orbital choreography. As Harss explained, “Ratmansky’s style, full of compound steps that begin one way and end another, needs space in order to be seen clearly. The ballet is bursting at the seams.”  
Enter the company’s familiarity with Segerstrom’s spacious facilities, an audience accustomed to premium ticket rates, and prime pre-holiday performance dates and Segerstrom’s deal became irresistible.  (Before the BAM arrangement, ABT had performed its “Nutcracker” more often in May than in December.) Segerstrom Hall also supports both a live orchestra (the Pacific Symphony) as well as a full chorus (Southern California Children’s Chorus), a boon to the dramatic effect of Ratmansky’s foreboding snow scene.

Hardly a dutiful, repeat assignment, dancing in ABT’s “The Nutcracker” is a high honor to be divided among seven casts at Segerstrom, including Copeland and revered principal Gillian Murphy, who debuted the role of the adult Clara at its 2010 world premiere. During a recent West Coast visit, the ginger-haired Murphy exudes a youthful charm as she speaks about the “awe and wonder” that Ratmansky envisioned for Clara and her Nutcracker. “Alexei wanted us to have a couple of moments of feeling kind of overwhelmed, even a little scared of what’s happening,” she explains in a soft voice. “Because there’s all this love percolating between Clara and the Prince. It’s not just sparkly and joy. There’s a very real feeling of first love and drama.”

It’s also one of the more challenging lead roles in her repertory, she explains. “Even in the traditional Petipa-based ‘Nutcracker,’ the music is quite long for the pas de deux variations and coda … yet there are more moments of stillness and slowly transitioning into the next sequence. Whereas in Ratmansky’s version, every moment is fully happening with a lot of running, a lot of bending, really intricate partner work, so there really isn’t even a moment to breathe, at all. It’s thrilling to watch.”  

Though “Nutcracker” productions traditionally subsidize dance institutions, Morr sees this top-tier professional version more as reliable programming than as a major income-driver. “If it’s a big production, nobody’s counting on it to generate huge profits,” she says. “Too many people involved.” Though ABT director McKenzie indicates a substantial  outlay this first year – traveling with sets, costumes and 90 dancers in this plush creation – certain costs will decrease in time, as when the “Nutcracker” sets and costumes are permanently stored in Costa Mesa.  

Back in the rehearsal studio, these hardworking student performers represent another way of defraying ABT’s touring costs. Yet McKenzie’s ongoing education initiative was borne earlier, from longstanding artistic goals. When founding the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York in 2004, McKenzie also spearheaded the development of an ABT National Training Curriculum to codify the company’s stylistic standards. Developing a strong program for children and pre-professionals would also help feed the company roster as well. (One such success story involved David Hallberg, who came into the company through an early-stage ABT training program at age 19 and famously became both a revered ABT principal as well as the first U.S. dancer ever to join the Bolshoi Ballet.)

When the Gillespie School launched in September, “the caliber of students was very strong,” says principal Haubert, a San Francisco native whose distinguished career with ABT and the Joffrey Ballet included in-studio work alongside Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor. Originally aiming for 145 students, she reports, the school launched in September with 187 enrollees from 3 to 14, 169 of them from Orange County. Using a half-dozen spit-shined rehearsal studios burrowed in backstage areas of Segerstrom’s main theater and neighboring concert hall, the school offers 35 classes a week – including character dance and a boys-only class – and plans to expand into higher levels next year.

“We had eight children performing in the second act of “Raymonda” – a Mariinsky Ballet touring production – “the second week we were in business.” She laughs. “No pressure.”
 “The success of the dance school has exceeded every expectation that I had for this incredible new training program,” patron Gillespie said in a November email exchange. “I could not be any prouder of the strong enrollment, of the selection of Principal Alaine Haubert, the dedicated and talented roster of faculty and above all, seeing how the students are taking to their classes, honing their skills and learning the art of dance.”

And Ratmansky – what did he think of these kids? As the toy soldiers head out for a water break, Haubert explains that the choreographer quickly chose 40-plus performers for the party and battle scenes – costume sizes dictate these roles as much as technique – but whether he would find dancers with both skills and a sense of naturalism to portray the lead children’s roles remained unclear until the last moment. For more than two hours, she says, he worked in a separate rehearsal room with a handful of potential versions of Clara, Fritz, the Nutcracker, and a scene-stealing baby mouse character.

“Five minutes before he walked out the door to the airport,” Haubert says, “he made his decisions,” naming four lead dancers (plus covers) to make up the second cast of children’s leads. In all, 37 of 48 performers come from the new Gillespie school, including all the lead roles. “He didn’t know if there would be four principals here today,” Haubert says. “I think he was pleasantly surprised.”


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