For dozens locally, ‘Nutcracker’ offers crack at professional ballet

Local “Nutcracker” dancers, from left, Owen Swanson and Juliana Murphy, along with Joseph Boswell and Audrey Thronson, rehearse the show’s party scene under the guidance of Peggy Goodner Tan, right, at the Academy of Dance in Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle)
Local “Nutcracker” dancers, from left, Owen Swanson and Juliana Murphy, along with Joseph Boswell and Audrey Thronson, rehearse the show’s party scene under the guidance of Peggy Goodner Tan, right, at the Academy of Dance in Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle)

If the angels on stage during “The Nutcracker” look angelic, it’s not necessarily because they are.

They’ve been practicing those facial expressions, along with a show’s worth of choreography (more steps for the tall angels, fewer for small ones), since before Halloween.

For 60 local dancers and 13 alternates who made the cut in September auditions, performances starting tonight – and the two and a half months of rehearsals leading up to them – offer a glimpse at the professional-dancing life.

Among lessons imparted by ballet teacher Peggy Goodner Tan, who’s run “The Nutcracker” rehearsals for 27 years in Spokane, are those related to the stage and those related to responsibility. Professionals never wear their makeup outside the theater, for example. Professionals don’t skip rehearsal.

Over the years, Goodner Tan said, she has grown comfortable setting high standards for the young dancers. The effect on the stage should be polished, she said – or as polished as 7-year-olds can be. The oldest dancer this year is 20.

“I think that’s all really great for children – to make a commitment to something, to have to come to rehearsal every week, to not call in on a Friday night and say, ‘I want to go ice skating with my friends,’ ” she said. “ ‘Mm-mm. You’re here for rehearsal. There’s somebody waiting to step in if you don’t want to be here.’ ”

The dancers will perform to live music, after Spokane Symphony musicians and board of directors reached a deal this week to end a four-week strike.

For the dancers chosen from about 200 to perform, “The Nutcracker” offers a rare opportunity, Goodner Tan said.

“It’s really the only time they get to be part of a professional production,” she said. “It would be like if a touring company came with a production of ‘Annie,’ and they said, ‘OK, we’re going to choose a local Annie and her friends.’ ”

Fourteen ballet schools are represented in the production. One girl travels from Odessa for weekly rehearsals, another from Colville. Of the dancers, five are boys.

Out of a dozen “small angels,” ages 9 to 11, rehearsing Friday evening at the Academy of Dance in Spokane Valley, about half said they were in “The Nutcracker” last year. Two were new as angels, a step up from their previous roles as bonbons.

“Bonbons have a little less technique than angels,” said Desiree Whipple, 10, before Goodner Tan called rehearsal to order. “Angels have to have a lot of technique.” Your foot has to be turned out in a certain way. You have to squeeze your stomach more than you would as a bonbon. It can be hard to breathe if you’re not doing it right.

Her 7-month-old daughter in her arms, Nikkei Meline watched from outside the studio as the small angels received direction inside. Her 11-year-old daughter, Isabelle Grimese, was among them.

It’s “kind of like a milestone for dancers – to perform in ‘Nutcracker’ when they’re kids,” Meline said.

It’s Isabelle’s second year in the production. This year, it’s more like a job for Isabelle than fun, her mother said. But that’s OK. It’s another lesson: “You have to stick with something for several years to get good at it.”

Sarah Holder, 16, hopes to land a dance scholarship for college. For Holder, “The Nutcracker” is a chance to get out of the studio.

It is a performing art, after all.

“There’s a lot of little steps and your feet start to hurt. That was for the first three weeks,” said Holder, who, like other “tall angels,” performs “en pointe.”

“Now it’s easy, because we know it,” she said. “It’s in our body.”

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