Melanie Grangaard, Special to the Vail Daily December 5, 2017 - originally published in the Vail Daily
Outside, the snow rushes down in sheets, a November gale sandwiched between weeks of sun and the 60-degree temperatures of Vail Valley's offseason. Veteran locals and newcomers to the mountains alike stock up on windshield wiper fluid and switch to snow tires, order firewood deliveries and drop off their skis for preseason waxes and buffs.
But for the dancers of Vail Valley Academy of Dance and the Vail Youth Ballet Company that practice in the upstairs of the Edwards Commercial Park, which overlooks the town, familiar Christmastime strains of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet have been piped from the speakers since Labor Day.
Nutcracker season is here again.For this dedicated bunch of tights- and tutu-wearing teenagers and parents who drive to and from dance practices day in and day out, the holiday feeling has been in the air since the first week of September.
Every two years, the local dance group graces the valley with the Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime. The dancers, costumes, choreography and mood of the performance differs slightly, but the tradition remains rock-solid.
For many of the performers — who have been dancing since childhood — participation in the ballet, whether as a mouse, snowflake, doll or highlighted role such as Clara or the Sugarplum Fairy, is a cornerstone of the holiday season experience.
Grace Anderson is a senior in Vail Youth Ballet Company, whose dancers, along with many from Vail Valley Academy of Dance, are performing in this year's Nutcracker Ballet, which is produced by Vail Friends of Dance. She began dancing when she was 3, and now at 17, has participated in a number of Nutcracker Ballets in roles including a mouse, soldier, angel, party girl and this year as a Spanish soloist, flower in the Waltz of the Flowers and as a snowflake in Snow, a large dance at the end of Act 1."I think the biggest thing this year for me is that I'm the oldest and I've seen all the younger girls kind of grow up," Anderson said. "Seeing all of them in these huge roles is really cool because I watched them when they were little babies and now they're beside me on the stage." At the end of the year, Anderson will say goodbye to Vail Valley Academy of Dance and is hopeful about college plans for next fall. For now, though, she is soaking the experience in and developing leadership skills as company captain.
"It will be sad to leave the studio and I'm already a bit nervous for after, when I have to try to find something like this kind of experience," she said.
Participating in dance is, for these boys and girls, similar to being part of a family. Classes including tap, jazz, contemporary and ballet take place after school during the week, with additional practices and rehearsals on Saturdays.
All of that time together leads to very tight bonds among dancers and across age groups. In the months and weeks leading up to larger productions, such as the Nutcracker Ballet and the Spring Showcase, it is not uncommon for dancers to be leaping and twirling four to six days each week.
COME AS YOU ARE
Having as many as 24 dancers on stage at once — varying from as young as 7 to parents of the kids — can be difficult, but it's also part of the legacy of the ballet.Though the ballet first premiered in Russia in 1892, it wasn't until it gained popularity in the United States in the mid-1900s that it became a full-fledged part of Christmas and one of the best-known ballets of our age. Children dancers from dance schools in large cities often audition when large professional companies come through for performances, filling a role to create a very similar performance for audiences from cities such as Las Vegas to New York City.
The Nutcracker Ballet, which is to be performed at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, is no such ballet. Lesley Tunstall, the artistic director at the school, in fact uses the dancers themselves — their mannerisms, personalities and the like, as inspiration for her choreography. Though she has been a ballet teacher for many years, she says that the show is always unique and is dependent upon the skills and experience and personalities available to her in the dancers.
"I always change the choreography because I only work with what I have. I don't come with a set choreography, because what if they don't get it?" Tunstall said. "Now, they're mostly between 14 and 17, so I can challenge them a bit more. It's like an empty canvas. If you came and were in front of me and were graceful, I would work with that grace. But if you were a little stiffer, maybe I would make you the part of a doll. So instead of making you look like you're trying to find a character, I come with what you can give."
DANCING LIKE THE PROS
As a school, the goal of teachers at Vail Valley Academy of Dance is to challenge and inspire the students to continue to expand and improve their skills. By supporting the Vail Youth Ballet Company, Vail Friends of Dance and the school allow company dancers to get a taste of the lifestyle experienced by professional dancers throughout the world. These opportunities include more performances, master dance classes and encouragement in auditioning for summer intensives.
Dance intensives usually take place throughout the course of about two to 20 weeks, often requiring travel and always challenging students with long dance days, new choreography and working with other dancers from throughout the country. The experiences allow Vail-area dancers the chance to immerse themselves in full days of dancing, developing relationships and strengthening their dancing skill-sets.
Anderson, a senior in the company, has fond memories of summer dance intensives, especially highlighting the connections she's made with other dancers at the intensives. She has attended several, including one with Burklyn Ballet Theater, one with the Colorado Ballet in Denver and one at the studio called the Vail Valley Dance Intensive. "I still talk to a lot she my friends from those summer intensives," Anderson said.Margeaux Stavney, this year's Sugarplum Fairy, agrees. Dancing since she was 8, the now-15-year-old dancer has attended summer intensives the past three years and describes the experiences as introducing new ways of seeing dance.
The companies that work with students at the intensives often feature live music during practice and performances, similar to professional dance companies."Dancing to live music lets us experience a lot of what professional dancers get to feel. It's really fun," Stavney said.
All the hard work is paying off.
"I've been watching girls do the Sugarplum since I was like, well, since I can remember," Stavney said. "We have our senior wall, and I can look at it and remember each of these girls when they were in (the Nutcracker). … I've danced on the Vilar stage, but this year I'm doing a solo on the stage, and this is the first year for me for that. … I've danced with professional dancers before, too, but I'm really excited to do the 'pas de deux' with a professional dancer onstage this year."
Stavney is thrilled to be working with professional dancer Phillip Skaggs, brought to the production by artistic director Tunstall to play the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Having a professional dancer "brings a great vibe to the stage," Tunstall said.
EXPRESSING EMOTIONS THROUGH MOVEMENT
Working with and showcasing a range of experience levels and ages, Tunstall also cast Vail Valley Academy of Dance instructor Colin Meiring as Drosselmeyer, a magician character who will perform magic tricks on stage.
"I love teaching. I love love love teaching," Tunstall said.
Though it has only been a few months since starting her position at Vail Valley Academy of Dance, the artistic director seems to have found her groove at the school and in the company of dancers.
"Oh I just love her. The way she teaches class is really chill but she pushes us," said Amanda Dirvonas, 14. "I've gotten a lot better with my form — I've been working on keeping my back straight, shoulders back, my ribs open. She's helped with my classical ballet stance and also teaching us how to avoid injuries."
Dirvonas will play part of a snowflake in Snow, a dancer in the Chinese Corps and a doll soloist.
Together with her knowledge of anatomy and movement from teaching dance as well as yoga, Tunstall is also sharing her love of costume design and construction for this year's Nutcracker Ballet. A crew of mostly parents works tirelessly nearly every Saturday until the performance, snipping and sewing and adding glitter and fabric to the costumes, often as the dancers twirl and leap in adjacent studios.
"With costumes, I want to make (the dancers) look as beautiful and feel as good as they can. We have an amazing costume crew," Tunstall said.
"The costumes are amazing. They're so fun to be in and dance in. I've always wanted to wear one of those tutus and this year, I get to and it's so fun," Dirvonas said.
Dirvonas has been dancing since the age of 3. In middle school, she took a break from dancing to try other things, but quickly returned.
"I just love it so much," she said, with a big smile. "I love how in dance, I can express my emotions through movement, so for example, if I'm sad, my movements are low to the ground, but if I'm happy, I move fast and higher, like more staccato." The community is encouraged to attend this year's Nutcracker Ballet performances, brought to you by Vail Friends of Dance taking place at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Friday, Dec. 15, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 17, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $38 and available at the Vilar Performing Arts Center and online at vilarpac.org, and the whole family is invited. For more information, visit vailfriendsofdance.org.