Behind the Scenes with the OKC Ballet

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Darli Iakovleva rehearses with other members of the company as an angel in "The Nutcracker."
Some of the young ladies who rehearsed as little angels. They will carry a prop in "The Nutcracker."
Fritz- Mackenze Mellen- and Clara- company member Callye McCollum- dance at the opening party. Both parts have alternating dancers.
Artistic director Robert Mills shows the party girls in Act I how to hold the dolls they've just received.
Yui Sato and Sarah Chun rehearse during the angels portion of "The Nutcracker."
Party boys dance at the Christmas party that opens "The Nutcracker."


 By Nancy P. Condit

Preparation for this season’s Nutcracker began last summer, with open auditions for the children on August 27th.  Saturday, November 19th was one of the regular Saturday rehearsals for the children, and some of the company members as Oklahoma City Ballet prepared for its annual traditional performances of The Nutcracker ballet at the Civic Center Music Hall.

Thirty party boys and girls – two casts for the children, ten to 12 or 13 year olds, dressed in pink, light blue, deep blue, and eggplant leotards for their division and white tights with pink ballet shoes for the girls, and black tights with white T shirts and ballet shoes, for the boys, divide themselves into two groups, sitting on the floor.  They and the company face a wall of mirrors in the brightly lit studio.  They have come into studio B for weekly Saturday morning rehearsals for three months with artistic director Robert Mills and ballet master Jacob Sparso.

An assemblage of older office chairs and a couple of folding chairs face the dancers.   Beside them is a table with the DVD player which provides the music from last year’s performance, and can give a visual example to make a more intricate point.  Mills gives examples, like how to hold their new dolls, to the girls, dressed in his trademark blue bandana, tied pirate style around his head, and casual street clothes.

The company members sit or stand around the outside of the room, waiting for their roles as parents in the opening scene.  They rehearse in small groups or by themselves, follow another dancer’s steps, work out — some sitting in forward splits for both men and women, talk quietly, wait, and check cell phones.  Some wear sweat shirts, sweat pants, or leg warmers to keep their muscles warm and prevent injuries.  Their dance bags are beside them.

Party children rehearse for an hour and a half.  The boys and girls of cast A rehearse this Saturday, and cast B the next.  Mills directs both sitting and standing, calling the children by name or “dear” if they need to pick up the pace. There is applause from the class and thanks from Mills when one student reminds Mills that one of the girls wasn’t there last week, that’s why she doesn’t know what group she belongs in.

He asks Fritz, Clara’s brother, “Would an upset emotion be a fast emotion or a more brooding, angry emotion?” when 13 year old Clara has a new dress and he doesn’t have anything special.  He asks how the girls would react when the boys run over to tease them.  How would they look if all of them crouched with bent knees. “It wouldn’t look natural,” he says.  They decide who will crouch with bent knees, and who will duck standing.  One of the company’s alternating three Claras, danced by company members, rehearses with the two Fritzes.

Mills reminds both the older children and the company that this is the third month of rehearsal, not the third week. When he rehearses the boys after the girls, he tells them to “Get it together,” prompting them with “It’s a skipping dance.”  He vocally provides the tapping drum for their music when they run over to the girls.

He uses humor to give direction and express his frustration.  He talks out his frustration when asking for quiet in a room with 50 children and company members.  After clapping hands three times with the children, and their clapping back, he looks at the company and says, more to himself, “…and you’re talking things out among yourselves…,” proceeding with the rehearsal.

At rehearsal midpoint, Mills asks the children, without sarcasm, if they’ve woken up from their luxurious breakfasts of waffles and maple syrup, saying, “We don’t want a zombie ballet.”

At the end of one of the adult angels’ dances, he says, “You should dance with a pleasant expression on your face, not as though your feet hurt.”  In the next run through, they are pleasant.

When one of the dancers playing a father catches the dancer playing Fritz, Mills reminds, “Will you be there for her?  You weren’t once.”  The dancer assures him he absolutely will.

After rehearsing the boys in the skipping dance, he asks them if they will be there for him at the performances.  Yes, they will, they all nod.

Members of the Oklahoma City Ballet members took time during their preparations for The Nutcracker to discuss what it’s like to dance for both Ballet Oklahoma and the OKC Ballet, choreograph a classic, and to dance it.

Stephanie Foraker-Pitts, who has danced with both Ballet Oklahoma and Oklahoma City Ballet, and is married to the son of Laura and Bryan Pitts, is familiar with dancing for both companies.

“Under Bryan and Laura Pitts, former New York City Ballet dancers, and artistic director and assistant artistic director of Ballet Oklahoma, I danced more in the Balanchine style.  Since Robert Mills has become the artistic director, there has been more introduction of contemporary ballet.  Both have been great experiences for me as a dancer,” says Foraker-Pitts.

Together and married for seven years, Anton and Darli Iakovlev – he’s from Russia, she’s from Estonia, are happy to sometimes finish each other sentences.  They both agree that The Nutcracker is “like a Christmas tradition.”

Asked what it’s like to dance for the same company, Anton replies, “It’s fun.  We can go over stuff at home.”

“I really enjoy it since we’ve known each other so long,” Darli says.  They pause to discuss how long it’s been.  They will dance the Arabian Coffee divertissement.  “It‘s always nice to have a chance to dance together.”

How does dancing for the same company affect them at home?  Anton responds first.  “It’s something fun to talk about.” Darli says, “I feel happier if rehearsal goes well, and if it doesn’t, it’s nice to have someone to talk about it.  I think we do separate our professional from our personal life.”

Asked about The Nutcracker, they both “feel it’s a Christmas tradition – a part of Christmas.”

You Sato, from Japan, has been dancing different roles in the ballet since he was 12 in dancing schools and professional companies.  He danced it in Japan and Holland when he was studying dance.  When asked how he kept it fresh, he replies, “I keep improving, so I can get different and better roles.  This year” – his first with OKC Ballet – “I’m dancing a different version of the Cavalier than I’ve danced before.”

“It’s hard to switch from one partner to another.  There are so many differences between Miki Kawamura and Sarah Chun – balance and body type.  They dance differently – they have different training.”

“I have to dance every day, so I will be tired.  I’m building stamina by rehearsing every day,” says the 23 year old. He gives the example of dancing the Cavalier at a matinee, again at night, and again the next day at night, as well as smaller roles.

Abraham Artus, who, at 12, dances as one of the party boys, said, “Some people at school are kind of mean to me because I dance, but it creates a lot of muscle, so I find that it’s manly.  I like to move, and the technique of it is fun – how you hold your body to make it look beautiful, and the hard work.”

Mackenzie Mellen, at 12, is dancing her first role as a boy, playing Clara’s brother, Fritz.  “It’s something you really have to learn how to do.  You’re so used to the flowing movements of a female dancer.  A boy is strong, but still fluid.”

Six and a half year old Kennedy Fine “loves to dance.  It fits my personality, and you do dance performances.  I really like to do pirouettes and passes.”

Eight year old Caroline Price will also play an angel.  “I like it because it’s fun and if you do a Nutcracker you meet new people.  I like to do split leaps and tour jetes.

For information about the OKC Ballet visit, or call 405.848.TOES


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