Nutcracker rehearsal with guest choreographer

A Nutcracker Like No Other

by Kate Dunlop
Renowned choreographers grace SPS stage with dances set for outstanding student dancers.
A month before the curtains lift on the SPS Ballet Company’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker, Act II,” guest choreographer Carlos Lopez, director of Repertoire with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), is in the SPS studio setting choreography for the iconic grand pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.
 
As Sixth Formers Katya Chernyshev and Andrew Fleischner attempt a lift, Lopez demonstrates how Fleischner’s shoulders must align with his hips for it to work. The micro adjustment makes the difference, and three dancers in the background snap their fingers in appreciation of the breakthrough.
 
“We’ve done it, so now we know we can do it,” Lopez proclaims. Then, asking Chernyshev which leg and direction she prefers for a series of fouetté turns, he continues with the task of tailoring the choreography to the dancers’ strengths.
 
Inviting guest choreographers to work with students throughout the year is a hallmark of the SPS Ballet Company, and the School’s production of “The Nutcracker,” composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and first performed in Russia in 1892, is infused with their expertise and vision. In addition to Lopez’s reimagined grand pas de deux, this year’s performance will feature a new Chinese Dance choreographed by Chinese dance educator Jessica Jone that is based in classical Chinese dance and incorporates authentic hand positions and fan use.
 
“There are stereotypes in the traditional choreography,” says Director of Dance Kate Lydon, an alumna of both ABT and San Francisco Ballet. “What once perhaps seemed harmless is no longer acceptable. It belittles something so important and needed to change.”
 
Lydon and Instructor of Dance Courtney Peix-Barros, an ABT® Certified Teacher, are always looking at which dances from “The Nutcracker” can be refreshed.
 
Last year, internationally renowned dancer and choreographer Ethan Stiefel, currently artistic director of American Repertory Ballet, created new Marzipan and Candy Cane Dances; Carmela Gallace, renowned character teacher and former principal with Moiseyev Dance Company, brought Russian character dancing to her choreography of the Russian Dance; and Yan Chen, principal company and academy teacher at Orlando Ballet, developed a new Sugar Plum variation.
 
Next year, Lydon muses, perhaps the Spanish Dance can include more of a traditional flair. “SPS dancers get a lot of opportunities to work with guest artists, probably more than they would have anywhere else,” she says. “It’s really hard work, but it's invaluable because they are working with someone who is there specifically for them to make something from nothing together. What they learn from that collaboration will follow them forever.”
 
When the curtain rises for a second act of “The Nutcracker” that is unique to St. Paul’s School, it will be easy to forget that the dancers are high school students. The visiting artists, Lydon notes, are invested in every minute they have with the students to make something professional.
 
“The Nutcracker” brings this group of dancers together in a way that nothing else does,” says Lydon. “My hope is that the audience is enraptured by the dance on stage, and that they are left with a lingering sense of beauty and holiday joy after the performance. I know that the dancers will work hard to create that for them.”
 
SPS Ballet Company performances of “The Nutcracker, Act II” will take place Friday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 12, at 2 p.m. in Memorial Hall. Parents are invited to campus for the Sunday performance; Friday’s will be livestreamed for community members who are unable to attend in person. For both performances, registration is required.

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