Students and pros meet in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
As 13 ballerinas stepped and twirled their way through the penultimate “Flowers” section of “The Nutcracker” last week in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet studio, a young girl —maybe 3- or 4-years-old — pressed her face against the glass rehearsal room door and looked on in awe. The wonder and excitement in her face as she watched the Snow Queen and Dewdrop Fairy in action says just about all you need to know about Aspen Santa Fe’s production of the Christmas Classic.
The annual show mixes a cast of professionals with young students from the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The kids fill the plethora of children’s roles, playing mice and soldiers and dolls. With the newly added Glenwood Springs Aspen Santa Fe studio, the children’s cast numbers nearly 200 this year, with 80-plus kids performing in each of its four shows.
The pros, such as Dewdrop Fairy and company dancer Samantha Klanac Campanile, and kids, like that little girl at the studio door, complement one another in performance — giving the students time on stage with their ballet role models and offering a saving grace for dancers who might otherwise grow jaded about doing “The Nutcracker” year after year.
Campanile herself recalled idolizing the featured dancers as a child and having the Sugar Plum Fairy sign her pointe shoes when she saw her first “Nutcracker” production in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I do remember that feeling,” she said during a rehearsal break. “I never would have thought I’d be on the other side.”
An Aspen Santa Fe dancer for 14 seasons, Campanile relishes the opportunity to go on stage and perform “The Nutcracker” at the end of each year.
“I think because you have been doing it for so long, there’s a nostalgia in it,” Campanile said. “You can’t help but feel a flash of what you felt when you were a little girl going to see the show or being in it for the first time.”
Aspen Santa Fe artistic director Tom Mossbrucker has taken part in a “Nutcracker” show every year since he was 13 years old and played the Rat King in a Tacoma, Washington, production. A former Joffrey Ballet dancer, Mossbrucker now directs the show for his company, working through choreography with both the pros and the students.
“It’s a great chance for the student to get to work with the professional company,” Mossbrucker said. “It’s a learning opportunity for the kids in the school to be back stage with them, and on stage with them.”
Most of Aspen Santa Fe’s performances are intimate productions that emphasize contemporary movement, with the company’s 11 dancers filling the stage. To tackle “The Nutcracker,” the company hires 10 professional guest dancers — based in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. The guest performers spend four weeks rehearsing with the Aspen Santa Fe dancers. Landing a four-week gig in the winter in Aspen is, understandably, a sought-after post, which makes for happy dancers and a surprisingly comfortable working chemistry between the full-time locals and the guests. The guest dancers live together during their stint here — split between condos at Aspen Alps and in Snowmass.
At 5 o’clock, after a full day of grueling rehearsal, the dancers were still laughing at Mossbrucker’s teasing and the wry sense of humor he brings to dance instruction.
“There’s a camaraderie that happens,” Mossbrucker said. “It’s important, because they all have to work together.”
Five additional guest artists join the cast for a few signature elements of the Aspen Santa Fe “Nutcracker,” including a Chinese sabre dancer, circus performers and two traditional Russian dancers.
After four shows in Aspen this weekend, the dancers get a two-day break, then head to Santa Fe for two days of performances with a new cast of kids.
This annual production of the Tchaikovsky-scored classic also offers the rare opportunity to see the local company performing classical ballet — including tutus and dancing on pointed toes. Most contemporary choreographers don’t utilize those classical aspects, so “The Nutcracker” offers the opportunity for the company dancers to work on their classical chops.
“Pointe shoes are a whole different ball game,” said Emily Proctor, who plays the Snow Queen. “For ‘Nutcracker’ we need to break new ones in and pick the correct ones and build the strength to work with them — that’s the major difference (from Aspen Santa Fe’s contemporary repertoire).”
Performing en pointe, with dozens of kids and collaborators from across the U.S. and across the ocean, brings an excitement to the local production that sweeps away any sense of “Nutcracker” fatigue.
“I’m really energized by the process,” Mossbrucker said. “It’s really a lot of fun to do and it’s invigorating. … We all joke about ‘the dreaded “Nutcracker”’ but I think most dancers don’t really dread it. It’s just kind of fun to say, ‘Oh no! “The Nutcracker!”’ — I do it, too — but it’s actually very exciting.”
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