Perchance to dance
Tulsa Ballet invites local youngsters to audition for roles in its annual production of “The Nutcracker.”
Sage Engle-Laird, Shelby Austin and Bobbie Lynn Kandravi talk with judge Merry Lahti at the Sept. 18 auditions for the role of Marie in “The Nutcracker.”
Each fall, Tulsa Ballet invites local young people, ages 7 and older, to audition for roles in its annual production of the holiday classic “The Nutcracker.” This year, among the toy solders, mice and other roles, two more advanced students, Bobbie Lynn Kandravi and Sage Engle-Laird, were chosen to play Marie, the little girl whose dream is brought to vivid life in the ballet.
Here, Marcello Angelini, Tulsa Ballet’s artistic director, who selected the girls for the role, discusses the “Nutcracker” audition process, the role local children play in the production and new additions to this year’s performances.
What is unique about Tulsa Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker”? Everything! I would say that our production of “The Nutcracker” is quite groundbreaking on a national level. There are thousands of productions of “The Nutcracker” being staged and performed every year in this country. The vast majority of them are “cookie cutters.” .... When I set out to create our version, I first read the novel quite a few times. Then I asked myself two key questions: Why does this story describe the spirit of Christmas, and what is the message we want to send to the people that choose to spend an evening with us?
… In my opinion, the key element that makes “The Nutcracker” a timeless holiday story is the fact that it celebrates the most noble of human traits: generosity, courage, love and the pursuit of our dreams. If we “read” the story through the eyes of a young, uncontaminated and innocent girl’s perspective, we experience all of these feelings. We see her dream to find a valiant prince that will love and protect her. We see her resolve to do whatever it takes, even defying her biggest fears — like facing the Mouse King — to save her beloved prince. We see her dreams to become a ballerina come true. And, ultimately, we see the unique ability of young children to see beyond the façade of human beings, perceiving their soul. Our Marie is able to look beyond the rather awkward appearances of the Nutcracker to discover his true beauty.
Are there any new additions for this year’s performances? The big change this year will be the debut of a new lead female dancer, Soo Youn Cho. We just started rehearsals and she is looking stunning!
Why do you enjoy including local young people in the production? I do love to see so many children on stage with our professional dancers, but not necessarily because I want to “sell out” the integrity of our production. The little mice and the toy soldiers need to be danced by little kids. I also added a ballet studio scene to our production. I did that because I felt the best way to make the story real was to tell it through the eyes of a ballet student. ... But I also made this scene to give local dance students the opportunity to be showcased in a professional ballet performance, and not just in a supporting cast role.
The other thing I tried to do is make the story take place around dance so that dance itself would be the glue that keeps the production together. Marie, our heroine, is a student at the Paris Opera ballet school. She dreams of dancing with the superstar of the company. Every little girl that takes dance dreams of growing up and dancing with the company’s superstar. In her dream, through the experience of defeating the Mouse King and protecting her beloved Nutcracker, she grows up to become a young maiden. Of course, when the Nutcracker takes off his mask, her prince charming, Charles Drosselmeier, is revealed.
How would you describe this year’s audition process? Ah, the audition process is always interesting. You have in front of you hundreds of youngsters. I am always happy to see them try so hard to get in our “The Nutcracker.” I also find that, through the process of working with our professional staff and being on stage with truly professional dancers, the youngsters learn a thing or two about discipline, musicality, teamwork and self-confidence.
I am so happy with our staff members in charge of the kids because I feel they teach them more than just dance. The best moment for me is when we put the entire production together. After weeks of separate rehearsals, dancers and children will come together in a dance that has no room for mistakes. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the dancers, with the limited vision that their masks allow, will probably not see you and will continue executing their choreography. One of my kids learned this lesson a couple of years ago. He got hit by the sword of the Mouse King. He has not made that mistake again!
Why did you select Bobbie Lynn Kandravi and Sage Engle-Laird for the role of Marie? I actually don’t make the choice. I am just an observer in the process. It is the dancers that make the choice. If they want it badly enough, if they have worked on their technique up to that point with discipline, dedication and passion, then they will have a light around them. … This year we experienced the same process. As soon as the girls started dancing, the two Maries, Bobbie Lynn and Sage, jumped out of the group. This is the same thing that happens at auditions. This year I saw more than 1,000 dancers auditioning for the main company. The people that wanted to be in Tulsa Ballet badly enough are the ones that got the job.
What other parts do children play in the production? Children play many other roles. There is an entire scene — the ballet studio scene — that is totally dedicated to them. ... Then they will appear again in the party scene and, of course, there are dozens of cute little mice and solders. My kids were 5 when I created this version. They started as little mice, they became toy soldiers and now they are in the party scene. In a year or two, they’ll be too big and hairy to play this part again. They are not looking forward to letting go of “The Nutcracker.” This is the same for many children who grew up with this version and went from mice to Marie, in some cases. There is a special bond between them and this ballet.
Why should families make plans to see the production this year? The music, the beautiful sets and costumes, the story, the choreography and the meaning of the entire work are the perfect way for a family to connect in the most basic way — through the love that bonds and unites us to our parents, children and grandchildren and to the rest of the world. No other entertainment offering is able to both amuse you and touch you as deep as “The Nutcracker” does. And this is why this work will continue to grace the stages of theaters worldwide for decades to come.
Tulsa Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” will be performed Dec. 11-23 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St. For more information, visit www.tulsaballet.org.