Student dancers go for encore performance

2011 rehearsals for Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker

Photo by Rachael Jensen.

When auditions started for this year’s production of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, Oakland Ballet Company saw many familiar faces in the studio.

More than half of the student dancers from last year’s performance returned to be part of the ballet in 2012, looking to reprise the experience of being backstage and learning from the pros. Of the 50 student dancers cast this year, 27 of them will be returning to the stage with OBC this December.

One of the distinguishing characteristics to the choreography of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker is the variety given to the student and amateur dancer roles and the amount of stage time they receive. The lead Marie, filled by an advanced student in many stagings of the ballet, is danced en pointe by a professional ballerina in the OBC version. She is a central and active figure throughout the ballet, and alongside her for most of her journey are characters from the 11 different roles filled by student dancers.

The number of available dance roles is a rare opportunity for students like Danica Adams, 13, who searched online for auditions to a professional ballet performance. Adams is a veteran of this young group, getting ready for her third appearance in Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker this winter.

To prepare for their time on stage, the dancers have five weeks of intensive rehearsal with Bat Abbit, Ballet Master, and Graham Lustig, Artistic Director.

“Mr. Lustig and Mr. Abbit helped me so much with where I am now,” said Jamie Melendy, 17, a student at the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. “They both taught me to just perform, if that makes sense.”

Last year’s Nutcracker was Melendy’s first experience with a large production, and when he was invited back for 2012, he couldn’t refuse, he said, even though it would mean back-to-back Nutcracker productions and would cut into his school vacation time to be with Oakland Ballet Company as soon as the Nutmeg’s Nutcracker closes.

Jenna Thompson, 15, likewise is managing two Nutcracker performances this season and is equally excited to be training close to OBC’s dancers again. Thompson, who takes classes every night of the week at Ballet Petit in Hayward and attended OBC’s Ballet Boot Camp in July, recalls the opportunity of learning firsthand by observing Oakland Ballet Company dancers.

In the studio during rehearsals, Thompson noted how the dancers started to move to bring a character into their roles, adding expression to the technique required by the choreography. Once backstage for performances, she saw how the dancers practiced their variations and self-corrected on certain steps.

“I’ve never been backstage before,” Thompson said. “It was great to see how the dancers interacted with the whole company to make the ballet happen.”

“It’s amazing to see all the other performers and how graceful they are,” added Leo Hirsch, 9, to what it’s like working with professionals. But his favorite part of being in The Nutcracker, he said, is the opportunity to dance with the accompaniment of live music from the orchestra.

A dancer since the time he could walk, according to his mother, Katy Porter, Hirsch has taken to ballet after originally signing up for break dancing lessons at the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance. After Porter suggested that ballet training would provide good technique for learning other types of dance, Hirsch learned what we all must learn some day – that our moms are usually right.

Ballet, he soon discovered, offered more than good technique. It was fun. He was in his first professional ballet with last year’s Nutcracker within months of taking his first class.

Like Thompson, Melendy, and Adams, Hirsch was excited to start rehearsals and be reunited with instructors and fellow dancers from last year.

“Really excited,” Hirsch said. Now let the countdown to curtain begin.

Kate Fratar

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