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Lineage and legacy

Three generations of ‘The Nutcracker’

Rehearsals for an upcoming production of Tulsa Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”

Joseph Rushmore

When Marcello Angelini created his new “Nutcracker” in 2003, he brought Tulsa Ballet a new approach to a timeless piece of art. It’s a story about momentary transformation, about launching for a moment into a different plane, where things that shouldn’t be possible miraculously are.

In other words, it’s a story about dancing: its terrors, its wonders, and most of all its lineage of knowledge and possibility.

Like everything analog, dance is painfully subject to the whims of time. It has to be learned again every day, in grueling hours of practice, mastering it before it passes out of reach. Dances themselves get forgotten, misplaced, misremembered. Even when a dance is captured on video, its real life is graspable only by a body, in real time.

Dances are handed down to dancers, by dancers. The audience shows up only at the end of a long chain of granular inside information and mind-bending repetition. “The Nutcracker” only exists on the day you go to see it because of an assiduous personal transfer of experience and wisdom that’s been going on for years.

Experience and wisdom—and the common ground of basically dying on a regular basis in rehearsal and backstage.

I spoke to three generations of “Nutcracker” performers about the process of learning and doing this ballet, and they all agreed: It’s a killer, behind whose illusion of dream-like flow lie a thousand daily rituals of patience and fortitude.

“The music starts, and you’re like—there is no way back!” Soloist Jonnathan Ramirez’s eyes went wide as he described how it feels to get ready to take the stage as Charles, the male protagonist. He’s been dancing this part for seven years, but it’s still like this, every time. Laughing in agreement were Tulsa Ballet II artistic manager and ballet master Alfonso Martin, who originated the role in 2003, along with demi-soloist Chandler Proctor, who will be dancing it for the first time this season.

“And what about the stairs?” Martin exclaimed. “The solo starts at the top of this huge flight of stairs and you have to run down. Every time I was terrified of falling down those stairs. I think if I ever did, I would just roll all the way to the bottom, take a bow, and run offstage.”

Ramirez and Proctor are nearly crying with laughter. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Ballet is a tradition-based art that renews itself with every new generation. The same is true on the women’s side. The part of Marie was originated by Assistant Artistic Director Daniela Buson, who six years ago taught it to principal dancer Madalina Stoica, and is passing it on this year to Na Eun Kim, a Korean ballerina who joined the company in July.

“It was very hard in the beginning, lots of on and off balance positions, lots of abandon,” Buson said. “I couldn’t even get through it at first. But eventually it started to feel very organic. When I teach the choreography I can give little hints and suggestions about how to do it. It’s still in my body.”

Stoica agreed. “I’m used to the classical version, so this was a shock to me. It made it easier to have Daniela teach me because I could watch how she did it. And it helped that I danced it with Alfonso the first time.”

For Kim, as for Proctor, stepping into this “Nutcracker” for the first time is a challenge. Far from the relative ease of more traditional versions, this one demands massive stamina. “Daniela has been very kind to teach me from A to Z,” Kim said. “The first day was so hard. But now, it’s getting easier.”

Buson emphasized that passing on a role isn’t about downloading cookie-cutter information into someone else. The coaching and even some of the choreography is personalized for each dancer, each with her particular strengths and intuitions. It lets her inhabit the tradition in her own way.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Stoica said. “Now, after doing it so long, I know what’s easy, what’s harder. But she has to teach it every year to someone new. She knows it will be easy for them eventually, but she still has to take them through the process.”

“That’s the best part,” Buson said.

This version of “The Nutcracker,” running Dec. 8-23 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is due to be retired in a few years, to make space for a new production. While it lives, these three generations of dancers hold its history in their hands. For a moment, they’re Charles and Marie, transforming memory into magic.

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