'The Nutcracker' Revisited

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NPR's Roy Hurst has a new appreciation for classical dance and the holiday favorite the Nutcracker. He gets some help from former ballerina Robin Gardinhire. Gardinhire is founder of The City Ballet of Los Angeles, a professional company designed to teach dance to black and Latino children.

ED GORDON, host:

There are those who believe that Christmas wouldn't be the same without the seasonal ballet known as "The Nutcracker." But for producer Roy Hurst, appreciation for this seminal work of art did not come easy. In fact, it only came when he met an African-American retired ballerina in downtown Los Angeles. But we'll let him explain this Christmas story.

ROY HURST reporting:

Every child should be exposed to "The Nutcracker," at least that's what I've been told. Truth is I never really got into classical ballet, let alone that famous cornucopia of sight and sound they call "The Nutcracker." Once back in the '70s, when I was 11, I was forced into--I mean I was exposed to a live "Nutcracker" production.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: I remember something about the music. I remember a humongous auditorium and comfortable seats and my mother slapping the back of my neck as I tried to get in a good nap. It wasn't the best experience. But that's just me. I was a kid who needed his "Nutcracker" to be what the wiz was to "The Wizard of Oz." And didn't James Brown do something with Tchaikovsky? No, that's right. That was Duke Ellington.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: Yeah, I might have gotten into something like that. But this particular production seemed to drag and all the animated toys and mountains of sweets couldn't keep my eyes open. But then again, maybe it was just me. Robin Gardenhire had a different experience. First of all, her mother had more success introducing her to classical ballet.

Ms. ROBIN GARDENHIRE: She always said, `My daughter's going to be a ballet dancer,' and luckily, I liked it, you know.

HURST: Back in the '70s, Robin's mother was looking to get her involved in an art form that isn't stereotypically black.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: My mother put me in a ballet class because she was a singer, you know, and all black people sing, you know, so she definitely didn't want that.

HURST: One day, her mom saw that the Los Angeles Ballet Company was holding auditions for--What else?--but "The Nutcracker."

Ms. GARDENHIRE: And she took me to the audition. I got the job.

HURST: Now's a good time to imagine Robin eating up the stage as a little chocolate fairy. And whatever it is, Robin had it.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: From there, they invited me to be on scholarship at the school. So that's really what began the whole process of becoming a professional dancer.

HURST: It was the beginning of a long career as a premier ballerina for several reputable companies, including The Joffrey Ballet and Baryshnikov's American Ballet Theater.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: And then there comes a time when every ballerina has to hang up her leotard and point shoes.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: And then I looked around and I was like, `What am I going to do with my life?'

HURST: She came back to Los Angeles, got married and saw that the city had no professional dance company. The one that she had come up in had folded long ago.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: I decided that I would build City Ballet of Los Angeles.

HURST: The idea was to create a company that would develop professional ballet dancers. It would focus solely on ballet and it would be affordable.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: So my thought was I would come to an area in which there are kids that don't get the proper type of training, because those other kids, you know, on the West Side or wherever that have money are able to pursue this career with no problems, with no financial problems.

HURST: That was five years ago. Today, the City Ballet of Los Angeles is a non-profit organization set in the downtown area known as Peco Union. Robin Gardenhire has a state-of-the-art studio tucked away in the Salvation Army.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Quiet. Thump, thump, thump and...

HURST: On this day, the studio is packed. Adult company members stretch and whisper among themselves as Robin works with a crop of very serious and well-postured little people. The kids here are mainly Latino and black. Everyone is rehearsing for the company's very first production of "The Nutcracker." A handful of proud parents peek in from the hall. Juliet May(ph) is watching her daughter, Melanie(ph).

Ms. JULIET MAY (Mother of Ballerina): She says she wants to learn how to move, how to dance and she work hard. Right now, she's in point shoes, yeah. Yeah, she gets point shoes now.

HURST: Robin has a great report with the kids and the parents appreciate it. She's managed to mix discipline with fun. And what's most amazing to me is that these kids seem to know all that fancy terminology--plie and tendu and shontsu(ph) and shontsee(ph) and I'd forgotten my ballet handbook.

How do you...

PARIS(ph) (Ballerina): Shontsay(ph).

HURST: That's Paris, an adult ballerina who was so kind to work me through it.

PARIS: ...first positions. Tondu is when your foot is pointed.

HURST: Say that again?

PARIS: A tondu.

HURST: A tondu...

PARIS: Your foot is pointed...

HURST: I ...(unintelligible) describe Paris through the part she's playing in "The Nutcracker." She is Coffee, an Arabian dance.

PARIS: Plie, when your knees bend.

HURST: Uh-huh.

Before all is said and done, ballet may just win me over after all.

PARIS: ...the balls of your toes, your feet.

HURST: A few days later, it's showtime, a full house at the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: It's nerve-racking just doing everything.

HURST: By now, Robin has just about lost her voice. She peeks out at the audience from backstage.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: It's going all right. Yeah.

HURST: You nervous?

Ms. GARDENHIRE: I am so nervous.

HURST: Then she gives one last pep talk to the youngest.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Fairies, you'll be over here in this area, orphans will be on the other side. Got it?

Group of Girls: (In unison) Got it.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Do we all feel good?

Group of Girls: (In unison) Yes!

Ms. GARDENHIRE: We say (foreign language spoken) in ballet, means good luck, OK.

Group of Girls: (In unison) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. GARDENHIRE: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of Girls: (In unison) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Have a good performance.

HURST: And then the show begins with marches and waltzes and the army of the Mouse King and the Spanish dance and the Arabian dance. The adults are marvelous and the kids are adorable in all of their colorful costumes and their precise coordination and their focus, and then it all ends.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Applause. I think they really loved it.

HURST: It was a very nice event, even if I found myself wishing Robin had chosen a holiday production of "All That Jazz." But while "The Nutcracker" obviously isn't for me, it certainly does seem to have added something to the lives of these young children.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: Doing "Nutcracker" I think is something that I think every child should see, you know, participate in. The kids these days really don't get that opportunity to be in a fantasyland and to be young ladies and young gentlemen, you know.

HURST: Robin Gardenhire says even if most of her kids don't turn out to be classical ballet material, she believes she's offering something they can always use.

Ms. GARDENHIRE: I think that my training really is geared towards these kids knowing how to behave well. And I think all parents would appreciate that.

HURST: Roy Hurst, NPR News.

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