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The Nutcracker 7.0 

The Civic Ballet's Drew Silvaggio keeps Tchaikovsky's classic on its toes

STUFFED WITH FLUFF :  Did you know one tutu can cost $400 to $500? Pictured is the Civic Ballet’s Helene Dinsmoor. - PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • STUFFED WITH FLUFF : Did you know one tutu can cost $400 to $500? Pictured is the Civic Ballet’s Helene Dinsmoor.

I was transfixed,” said Drew Silvaggio, describing his first impressions of live theater. His eyes got really wide. “It was like an airplane was taking off right in front of my face! … I feel bad for people who don’t get to see live theater.”

The Civic Ballet’s reigning artistic director, Silvaggio has spent his career to date trying to share that energy and amazement with ballet-goers year after year. Silvaggio is currently directing his seventh Nutcracker with the company, opening at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center on Dec. 11. To keep the show from losing its momentum—and himself from going insane—Silvaggio re-choreographs and re-casts Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic each year.

“It will never be finished,” he said. “That’s part of what makes me so excited to do it each year.”

As he gets better at choreographing and his dancers get better at dancing, Silvaggio explained, an annual overhaul is necessary to accommodate the company’s abilities.

It’s been 33 Nutcrackers since the Civic Ballet began. Dancer Jackie Lee has been in every single one, making her a valuable resource to the show’s director.

“Thirty-three Nutcrackers—that’s insane!” Silvaggio gushed. “I would love to be able to go inside her brain and look at all of the Nutcrackers.”

- GET IN CLARA’S HEAD:  The Civic Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs on Dec. 10 and 11 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo. For tickets, call 756-ARTS or visit pacslo.org. -
  • GET IN CLARA’S HEAD: The Civic Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs on Dec. 10 and 11 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo. For tickets, call 756-ARTS or visit pacslo.org.

The presence of a veteran like Lee, Silvaggio said, is “a good barometer of where we are in 2010 and where we started in 1977.”

The cherished role of Clara has been shared by two dancers ever since the year the only Clara became “deathly ill.”

“Ever since then, we’ve had two Claras,” he explained. “One goes down, we got another one.”

The Claras—played this year by Annie Campbell and Molly Moore—are treated equally, something Silvaggio emphasizes by referring to them as Clara 1 and Clara A. The director was taken by the fearlessness of Campbell and Moore, ages 14 and 12, respectively.

“They’re such little gangbusters,” he giggled. “I love ’em.”

Although such young dancers may be prone to stage fright, Silvaggio takes time before each opening night to “take that little Clara and tell her to turn around and look at everybody and say, ‘All these people are here to support you and to help you.’” The inter-reliant nature of performance is something very important to the director, as is an approach to dance that is egoless, even altruistic. He described the art form as “the most unselfish pursuit,” using the body as a tool to tell a story that brings joy to others.

click to enlarge ‘THE MOST UNSELFISH PURSUIT’ :  The company has delighted audiences since 1977, faithfully delivering a Nutcracker every year. Pictured is the Civic Ballet’s Lyndsay Katherman. - PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • ‘THE MOST UNSELFISH PURSUIT’ : The company has delighted audiences since 1977, faithfully delivering a Nutcracker every year. Pictured is the Civic Ballet’s Lyndsay Katherman.

Morgan Kizanis embodies the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the hard-working Ryan Beck—who recently danced the lead in Ballet Theatre SLO’s A Christmas Carol— reappears as the Nutcracker.

As long as The Nutcracker stays a Central Coast favorite (as it has since 1977), the show will remain the company’s anchor, providing the group with the funds for riskier new spring productions. So far, there’s no word on what’s in store for the warmer season, but Silvaggio already has a few ideas. His own work has a much edgier appeal, something he describes as “mean, gritty man-dancing.”

“Look at me,” he said. “I don’t have a dancer’s body. I’m not this skinny little twig-boy. So my organic movement that comes from me is really low to the ground and spread out.”

Dancers from other companies, familiar with the Civic Ballet’s classic, beautiful productions, are sometimes shocked to see the products of Silvaggio’s unbridled imagination.

The director elaborated: “They see [the dancers] up on point, being beautiful, and then they see them barefoot, rolling around on the ground, sliding on their knees in blood, and they’re like, ‘Are these the same dancers?’”

THE ROSE QUEEN :  Michelle Epperheimer alone is “worth the price of admission,” said Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio. - PHOTO BY JULIE CAMPBELL
  • PHOTO BY JULIE CAMPBELL
  • THE ROSE QUEEN : Michelle Epperheimer alone is “worth the price of admission,” said Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio.

Around 85 percent of people, he estimates, love The Nutcracker, simply because it’s The Nutcracker. For two hours, they can get lost in an opulent world within a world, a sugary wonderland where the only thing resembling holiday stress is a battle between mice and toy soldiers—and we all know who wins anyway.

But that remaining 15 percent is already occupying Silvaggio’s mind.

“They need something to engage them into liking Nutcracker,” he said. “There has to be a way to get them into the theater.”

And that’s what spring is for: the hopeful launch of the daring and the new. Like a plane taking off right in front of your face. Silvaggio’s originals are story-driven, he said, as is The Nutcracker, but his own stories are different, more updated.

“Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad,” he shrugged.

And while he cherishes his Christmas classic—and does a fine job with it— he freely admits: “I just live for spring. I really do.”

New Times’ Arts Editor Anna Weltner braved many a toe shoe to the face to bring you this story, so thanks for reading it this far. Send comments to aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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