Valerie Harmon’s first part in The Nutcracker was as a little snow angel when she was eight years old. Unlike a lot of professional dancers, Valerie didn’t grow up doing The Nutcracker every year because her local dance studio didn’t do its own production. She did however do her own productions of this holiday show - in her living room, where she made her parents watch. This year 2,000 children will be watching her; Valerie has been given the opportunity to dance the role of Marie in the Student Matinee of The Nutcracker performance on December 16th.
A mere three weeks ago, Artistic Director Michael Pink told Valerie that he’d love to have her do a matinee of Marie to “break the ice”. Suddenly, like the growing Christmas tree onstage, Valerie’s Nutcracker experience grew into something much bigger and more magical. Michael’s version of The Nutcracker is unique in that all three siblings, Clara, Fritz and Marie, go on a journey to the Land of the Sweets. Marie, the eldest sister, dances the Snow Pas with the Nutcracker Prince (we find out he’s actually Karl, Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who has a crush on Marie) and she becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Act II. According to Valerie, learning the pas de deux is one thing – but all of the details in the party scene, the battle, transformation and snow are much more complicated. Luckily she’s been paired up with David Hovhannisyan – a real pro as Karl. He’s helped her through the one-handed-lift in the Snow Pas and Valerie says his connection, energy and calming eye contact are constant, and that his professionalism as a partner make her feel so comfortable. Valerie and David danced the poignant mask pas de deux in Clowns & Others and there’s no doubt they’ll be a sparkling duo in The Nutcracker.
Valerie recently went to Minnesota to “do a guesting” at Twin Cities Ballet as the Sugar Plum Fairy along with Darren McIntyre as her Cavalier Prince. She used these performances as a trial run of how Sugar Plum would go; they were allowed to use Michael Pink’s choreography so over the four performances she could test her stamina and even her confidence as she tried to play a bit with the music – holding a balance as long as possible or adding in an extra turn if she was really “on her leg”. She says that The Nutcracker will probably be a “blur before my eyes,” but that she’s ready and thrilled about having this chance. When Valerie was in Milwaukee Ballet II she sat in the audience for one of the Nutcracker performances she had off and she remembers how powerful and gorgeous it was. (Remember, the dancers hardly ever get to see what the ballet actually looks like!) She says, “It really is magical! I’m excited to perform for the kids – they’re the best audience. They giggle, and clap and even boo and you can really hear who you’re performing for!” I know they’ll be clapping for her!
The Nutcracker is an excellent time for these casting surprises and it allows our artistic staff to give the dancers challenging opportunities in the safe environment of a show that the dancers know so well. With a longer run of performances (14 regular shows and 2 student matinees) there are also more casts – this year, for example, there are three dancers playing Clara but five cast as Marie (including Valerie). In addition to teaching a new crop of school kids (150 of them!) the parts for angels, geese, soldiers, mice, Mother Ginger children, party kids and big friends, our new Milwaukee Ballet II dancers and Company members Tanner Schwartz, Josh Reynolds and Julianne Kepley have a lot to learn as well. You’ll see Julianne as Marie and the Snow Queen, Tanner as Fritz and a Jack, and Josh as Karl, the Rat King and Arabian. The casting is a bit more fun and off-the-wall this year but perhaps I’m biased. You’ll see Marc Petrocci doing Jack #1, Petr Zahradnícek doing Spanish, Rachel Malehorn as the Rat King, Education Assistant & Relevé Coordinator Lori Flanigan and me (!!!) as Grandma (we share this role with two other dancers) – all for the first time this season! Wow, dreams really do come true around the holidays!
On a personal note, Lillian Covillo, co-founder of Colorado Ballet, passed away during the week of Thanksgiving. Lillian and Freidann Parker (who passed away in 2002) founded Colorado Ballet in 1961 and in October the Company’s celebrated their 50th anniversary, of which Lillian was a part! I have such a dear place in my heart for Colorado Ballet (where I started my own career in the ballet world) and for “Lill and Fritz” two of the most ambitious, determined, fiery and fantastic women I’ve ever met who made such a huge contribution to Colorado, to the arts, for dancers and for women. With Lillian and Freidann’s vision and guidance and under the Direction of Martin Fredmann, the Company grew to a highly successful company, bringing in world-class dancers and choreographers like Michael Pink, who I met there in 2001 when he first staged Dracula. Those ladies were always involved until they simply couldn’t be anymore. I can just see them – Freidann in her snakeskin pants and Lillian in her fur coat. It is just like Lillian to have made it gracefully through the 50th anniversary before her final curtsey and I think that whatever exists in a world beyond – in a ballet heaven perhaps, Lillian and Freidann are happy to be spending Nutcracker season together this year.
Director of Education