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November 26, 2008 > 30 Years of Nutcracker Tradition

30 Years of Nutcracker Tradition

By Emma Victoria G. Blanco

"Nutcracker is a story for children and nobody dances it better than children. And when the children dance well, it makes for a very special experience." Peggy Peabody's enthusiasm and excitement about Ballet Petit's upcoming production of "The Nutcracker" is infectious. Perhaps it is because Ballet Petit is celebrating its 30th Anniversary performing the popular holiday event.

Peabody is the Artistic Director of Ballet Petit. A fervent teacher (fourth grade teacher by day and ballet teacher by night), she started teaching ballet to four little girls at a nursery school in 1977. In 1983, Ballet Petit was founded in an 800 square foot space in Newark. There were 24 students then. After a couple of years, they moved to Fremont for a few years before returning to Newark. In 2003, Ballet Petit had grown to 158 dancers and finally settled in its present facility located in Hayward.

Today, Ballet Petit's student's number over 275 and each of them will get a chance to be on stage next weekend for a special anniversary presentation of "The Nutcracker." What sets Ballet Petit's Nutcracker apart from others is that their show is comprised primarily of children, who are dancing the sophisticated roles that require intricate artistry and knowledge of technical aspects. "Classical ballet tells stories and you can't tell stories one sentence at a time. Within each story is a scene, a situation or a plotline," Peabody explained. Dancers for each scene practice together one at a time.

Ballet Petit students started learning choreography for the Nutcracker in September and casting was done in October. No actual auditions were held. Instead, casting decisions are made primarily by Peabody, who knows her students well; which dancers work hard and which ones are dependable. "I need to look at the total dancer, not just at how well they can do in front of judges for a few minutes," she stated. "Some of the dancers are very technical, some are very artistic, some jump well, but everyone works well together to be the best they can be. Our selection process sets a different tone." According to Peabody, casting is akin to a puzzle. She has all the pieces (dancers) to work with, finds a special place for each and everything falls into place.

This year Ballet Petit's Nutcracker has three dancers for the lead role of Clara. Each girl will have a chance to perform at each of the three shows.

"The Nutcracker is for children," stated Peabody. "At Ballet Petit, that is clear on stage, off stage, backstage, and in the audience." A unique feature of the production is that it includes dancers as young as three years old and spotlights older students who have danced their way up to more challenging pre-professional roles over the years. Peabody explained that the ballet was written for children, and is therefore best performed with children. "Our version of the ballet centralizes that for the audience," she said. Her young dancers can master the more difficult roles with strong training and artistic direction. "Many ballet schools will hire professionals or have teachers dance the challenging parts, but we prefer our own students learn those roles and gain performance experience," she stated.

Peabody expects a lot out of her students and is especially proud of the team-effort and collaboration that goes on between the older and the younger students. It isn't surprising to find that some of the dancers who have held roles in previous performances helping those in the current roles rehearse, providing critique "with quite a high level of sophistication." At a recent rehearsal, Peabody witnessed a 14-year-old student rehearsing an 11-year-old, "bringing out the beautiful expression and emotion from the younger student."

Talent is not exclusive to Ballet Petit's students. For years, parents have been an integral part of the production team, lending their artistic skills to produce beautiful and professional-quality costumes and backdrops. On top of highlighting the parents' involvement at this anniversary production, Ballet Petit expects former students to join the celebration either as dancers or as part of the audience. One former student, currently a postdoctoral candidate at Harvard University intends to fly from Boston to perform as one of the Gingersnaps. Peabody plans to include Ballet Petit alumni in Sunday's night's choreography.

Peabody enthuses with pride when talking about Ballet Petit's progress and evolution over the past 30 years. When asked about the biggest struggle Ballet Petit has had to overcome, she talked about the effort it takes to articulate what distinguishes classical ballet from dance ballet. What has solidified the difference for parents and the community has been the opportunity that Peabody has taken to bring some of her dancers to the International Ballet Seminar in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000, 2006 and 2008. "Dancers were literally dancing in the Queen's Royal Theater," she exclaimed. One of Ballet Petit's dancers, Sarah Martin, received a scholarship along with another dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet.

"History says it all," Peabody concluded as she continued to reminisce. "Every piece of it, every experience has been significant, even the unknowns and the little things that we were not aware of. I hope we have a lot ahead of us. I'm still learning."

The Nutcracker
Performed by Ballet Petit
Saturday, December 6
2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Special 30th Anniversary Show:
Sunday, December 7
7 p.m.
Chabot College Performing Arts Centre
25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward

Admission: $20 adults, $16 children/seniors
Group discounts available for groups of 20 or more
(510) 324-4988

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