After a dearth of in-person performances last holiday season, Westside Ballet of Santa Monica will once again light up the Broad Stage with that perennial family favorite, The Nutcracker. Six young dancers from the Culver City area join the cast, including as the lovable Clara and her impish brother Fritz.
Westside Ballet’s Nutcracker has been a beloved Los Angeles classic for almost 50 years and treats both children and adults to the magical wonder of fun and ethereal dances, mischievous party mayhem, and the treasured Tchaikovsky score. “Words cannot describe how thrilled we are to finally return to The Broad Stage, which has been our home since 2013. There is truly nothing like sharing the exquisite artistry of our production and talent of our dancers with the greater Los Angeles community,” states Martine Harley, Artistic Director for both the Westside Ballet of Santa Monica and the Westside School of Ballet. “We know audiences are eager to once more experience the ballet they’ve loved for so long, especially after our 2020 hiatus from the stage. And the kids who are performing are just over the moon with excitement.”
Among those young dancers performing this year are six Culver City area kids: Heath Olvera (Fritz), Elisa Suffriti Cefola (Russian), Evelyn Chung (Angel, Red Soldier, Party understudy), Isla Segar (Snow Fairy, Blue Soldier), Linka Tiesiera (Blue Soldier, Polichinelle), and Serena Klipfel (Clara on Nov. 27 at 5 pm, and Dec 4 and Dec. 5 at 1pm; Peppermint and Russian in the other performances). Thirteen-year-old Serena is the most senior of the group, having danced in five Nutcrackers with Westside Ballet. This is her first time in the lead role of Clara. “I am so incredibly happy to be playing Clara this year,” she enthuses. “I feel like that role is a challenge when it comes to acting and concentration, but I’m ready and prepared for it. I am so excited! In the future I would love to be the Snow Queen or the Dew Drop Fairy [from Waltz of the Flowers], both roles I have loved since I first saw The Nutcracker.”
Three of the Culver dancers are performing this beloved ballet for the first time. Ten-year-old Isla, who has danced since she was age five and has a featured role as the Snow Queen’s attendant, confides: “This is my first Nutcracker, so I am excited and a little nervous. But I know that’s normal.” Heath, who is nine years old, shares that he is “excited to be the little brother Fritz and to scare everyone with a rat!” He goes on to say that he started dancing at age four because of his older sister: “I was always waiting for her to get out of dance class, but I liked the piano music and jumping up and down in front of the mirrors.” Evelyn, also age 10, notes, “I really like my role as a Red Soldier because, unlike other typical ballet roles, the Red Soldiers don’t have to point their toes all the time. We also don’t have to wear big poofy dresses like the other parts. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The two other Culver dancers are experiencing their second Westside Nutcracker, albeit their first time in a full production (last year had short Nutcracker highlights shown online from the studio). They have become introspective and philosophical about their approach to ballet. Fifth-grader Linka, who is a silver medal CCUSD Math Olympiad, observes that dancers need “intelligence, they need to understand physics and relate to how their own body works. Turns, jumps, and steps can be really challenging, so you have to be pretty smart to master and integrate them into choreography with other dancers who move differently than you do.” Eight-grader Elisa came to Westside Ballet during the pandemic, after years as a competitive gymnast and then silks aerialist – skills that serve her well in the Russian dance. “Covid hit and I was devastated,” she shares. “My silks studio closed down and I was left with no passion for any activity. But then two people I love very much opened my eyes to ballet, and I felt as if I’d found what I needed. The perfect medicine and distraction to all my worries and frustrations, and I’ve been welcomed at Westside Ballet in a very short time.”
Dancing during Covid has been an interesting challenge for everyone at Westside Ballet. The school was closed for a time last year, but then partially resumed classes in the summer of 2020. Student attendance dropped dramatically, some of the practice studios were shut, and the school and company felt the same deep financial losses as everyone else in the performing arts. But Martine Harley and the other school and company leaders continued to forge ahead, believing it was important for the soul and the community to keep dancing. This year, everyone at the school over age 12 has been vaccinated, attendance is up, and Harley is unaware of anyone at Westside contracting covid. There is also an unexpected side benefit to everyone dancing in masks for over a year. “It was hard for them in the very beginning to take class in a mask,” Harley confides. “But physically their stamina has increased to accommodate the restriction of breathing with a mask over their mouth and nose. And now we’re all so used to it, us teachers and the children, that the mask is just part of normal dance life.” Nutcracker rehearsals have also been masked, “so the delight will actually be that they get to go on stage, smile, and not wear a mask,” says Harley. “That’s going to be wonderful.”
Indeed, it will be wonderful for dancers and audiences alike to once again enter the enchanting realm of Holiday fantasy from the moment the lights dim at The Broad––from the classic Victorian-style party scene to the Kingdom of Sweets, where Tchaikovsky’s sparkling creativity inspires dances of fanciful flowers and splendid fairy queens with their dashing cavaliers. For the young and young at heart, for those who dance with their bodies or only in their souls, this Nutcracker will be a welcome land of happy dreams. “As a young girl,” shares fifth-grader Evelyn, “I loved to dance. I liked how the dancers glided across the stage and leaped through the air, and I instantly fell in love with it. When I saw my first Nutcracker, I knew that someday I was going to become one of those dancers. Years later, my dream has come true!”
Shows are Saturday November 27 and December 4 at 1pm and 5pm, and Sunday November 28 and December 5 at 1pm. Tickets available at www.westsideballet.com or 800-595-4849, The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
Note: The performances follow all local and state covid protocols. Masks are required for all audience members and unvaccinated dancers. Those age 12 and over must show proof of full vaccination; ages 11 and under can show either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours.
Fiona Nagle, PhD, is a retired professional ballet dancer from Los Angeles who has performed in countless Nutcrackers. These days she is on the Advisory Panel for the Culver City Arts Foundation and is a freelance project manager looking for fun and creative projects. www.SustainableVisionsCoaching.com