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These Two Immersive Holiday Ballets Give Audiences a Multi-Sensory, 3-D Experience

Artists of Wonderbound in "Snow." Photo by Amanda Tipton, Courtesy Wonderbound.

As a student in a pre-professional ballet school, one of the best parts of performing in company productions was getting to be in the midst of the action with the company dancers. In Nutcracker, for example—between my all-important moments of dancing glory (the two minute children's dance)—I'd eavesdrop on the party parents' conversations and (sometimes PG-13) jokes.

Even with the hazards of sweat flung from a pirouetting dancer's forehead, I often feel that audience members are missing out—watching a ballet from the front is rarely so intimate.

It seems I'm not alone in this thought. Two regional companies are looking to shake up the performance format with their immersive winter productions. With live music, cocktails, puppetry and up-close and personal party access, American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite and Wonderbound's Snow are sure to pique new interest.


American Contemporary Ballet's Sarah Bukowski as Marzipan. Photo by Art Lessman, Courtesy ACB.

American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite

American Contemporary Ballet, now in its seventh season, is premiering its unique Nutcracker production this year. Artistic director Lincoln Jones was initially reluctant to do a party scene. "For audiences today, especially audiences in Los Angeles where they don't really grow up with ballet," he says, party scene's "over-large acting" can be difficult to connect with.


Additionally, the performance space for the production's December 8 debut is the company's rehearsal home: the 32nd story of an L.A. skyscraper. "Given the lack of an official fourth wall with the proscenium, I thought it was an opportunity to do something entirely different."

His solution? Allow the audience to be part of the first act's party. They can move about the space and walk right up to the musicians playing a chamber composition of Tchaikovsky's score. Though there are partitioned sections for the mechanical dolls to do their thing, the party also includes some "dreamy carnival" activities audience members can partake in. (Jones didn't want to spoil the surprise, so L.A. audiences will have to wait and see what these include.)

Paradoxically, Jones also wasn't interested in sugar coating his Land of Sweets. He says that many Nutcracker productions are based off of the Alexandre Dumas version of the tale, which "takes the teeth out of [the story]." In contrast, he's hoping to challenge the audience with themes from the darker E.T.A. Hoffman story that came first. Rather than a sweet dream, comfortable to fall in to and easy to awaken from, Jones is more interested in the choice Hoffman poses: Should Marie (Clara in Dumas's adaptation) dispense with childhood fantasies and conform to the strict world awaiting her, or enter adulthood "with her imagination intact?"


Artists of Wonderbound in "Snow." Photo by Amanda Tipton, Courtesy Wonderbound.

Wonderbound's Snow

Denver, Colorado-based Wonderbound does away with Nutcracker altogether. Snow, which opens on December 12, is part two of a three-part trilogy. (Winter debuted three years ago, Snow encores this year, and the third is yet to come.) Each production can stand on its own or be part of a year-to-year journey rotated over time.

And each is darker than your average holiday production. In creating his company's winter show, artistic director Garrett Ammon was more interested in the season's themes of "death and renewal" than its candy cane and tinsel traditions.

He also perfectly tailored his production for the young professional's date night. The company performs the 50-55-minute Snow twice per evening. (Scheduled on weeknights, so as not to compete with weekends' other performance and party obligations.) The first is an "appetizer" show, the second is "dessert"; Wonderbound works with local restaurants to provide the bites. Audience members can grab dinner at the partner eatery then head to company's garage space to nibble on dessert while watching the show, or they can reverse the order with appetizers beforehand.

If the food and beverage offerings aren't enough to entice, Snow is its own kind of wonderland with incorporated puppetry, projections, and live music by a local folk band. "Even if they know nothing about ballet," says Ammon, "people can still come to one of our performances and have many avenues of entry to be a full-fledged member of the audience." And once he lures you in, he may even rope you into some light audience participation.

Ammon says that with its folk and court-dancing origins, ballet used to be participatory. As an art form, it doesn't have to be rarefied.

American Contemporary Ballet's The Nutcracker Suite runs December 8–23.

Wonderbound's Snow runs December 12–21.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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