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It’s an hour before the final dress rehearsal for “The Nutcracker” and we’re chatting with Ballet San Antonio‘s Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche. The performance opened to a sold out Majestic Theatre on Friday Nov. 29 and tickets are still available for performances Dec. 6–8.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the opening date as Dec. 20, the opening night of Arts San Antonio/San Antonio Metropolitan Ballet’s performance at the Lila Cockrell Theatre. These are two separate performances of the classic ballet.]

“Well, it’s our farewell to The Majestic,” Zertuche said. “We’ll have all new sets and costumes, and as much as we love The Majestic, we are really excited about the new space.”

Yes, it’s bittersweet, but the exquisite anticipation of their move to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2014 is clear.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

Behind Zertuche, Ballet Mistress DeDe Barfield puts the company through the paces of warmup on stage, ensuring that everyone is ready to go. Careful preparation for performance is absolutely essential.

The job of the professional ballet dancer is one of the most physically and mentally challenging. A testament to that? We will miss Principal Dancer Ian Morris for this series of performances. He was making his way around the theater on crutches due to a snapped Achilles tendon.

And the lovely Lydia Relle? Still in a boot from an Achilles tendon injury that she sustained just before the premiere of “Cinderella” back in October. Injuries like these make things all the more difficult for this small company because they don’t import soloists for hire, each and every dancer is a critical piece of the performance roster puzzle. No one is taken for granted or easily replaced. As always, they gracefully rise to the challenge, working harder, and hopefully, smarter.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Principal Dancer Ian Morris looks on backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

Zertuche rushes off to attend to last minute preparations while we pick up the conversation with Ballet San Antonio President and CEO Courtney Mauro Barker. These two are yin and yang – practically joined at the hip in their efforts to put Ballet San Antonio on the map.

I am particularly interested in how this young company engages in community outreach. “We have over 150 kids participating in the performance this year, I just didn’t want to cut anyone,” Barker said. “Sally said, ‘You’re not really going to do this to me?’ (managing 150 children in a professional ballet is no small task) and I said, ‘Yes, I am!’”

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

Sally Simmons is the Children’s Director of the company, tasked with teaching and rehearsing this multitude of children performing in the ballet. They are fortunate to have the experience of working with this professional, trained at the renowned Royal Academy of Dance in London – among the top tier of professional training schools in the world.

“The Nutcracker” rehearsals started back in September after open-call auditions. This is not an exclusive casting – children throughout the city had the opportunity to compete for placement in this year’s performance. And now, they excitedly await their debut on the stage of The Majestic.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

The Nutcracker” is truly a training-ground ballet. This is where most working ballet dancers get their start – as angels, mice, toy soldiers, “Mother Ginger” children, party children, and/or the young Clara. They eventually work up to snowflakes, flowers, and beyond to the variations and soloist roles. But this isn’t playtime. This is a professional production, and the children are expected to behave accordingly.

And they do. In addition to the large children’s cast for this seasonal favorite, Ballet San Antonio also reaches out with two youth performances. They provide 1,000 tickets to Title I schools for under-served youth, and the remaining seats are deeply discounted. For at-risk children to have such an opportunity is truly a treasure. The excitement and inspiration of partaking in activities such as these are beyond measure. How do you place a price on the presence of magic in an impressionable child’s life?

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham. Credit: Page Graham for the Rivard Report

This evening, The Ghost Light Society members are in the audience. This group of young professionals is organized by the Tobin Center with the goal is to guide the next generation of San Antonio’s leaders to appreciate and cultivate the performing arts, now and into the future.

This has always been a challenge in San Antonio. Our city isn’t recognized as a “dance town” – yet. In order for that to happen, outreach is absolutely critical. For patrons young and old, “The Nutcracker” is one ballet that most will recognize – in many cases the only ballet that many folks ever experience. The hope is that they will be hooked and seek out more opportunities to enjoy dance.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

The simple truth is that we need to be as supportive of Ballet San Antonio as we are of the famous Joffrey Ballet or when anyone with a vaguely Russian-sounding name comes to town.

Actually, we need to be more supportive, because these are the people making the sacrifice to grow a solid professional company, the ones doing the hard work.

Back in the 1970’s, Houston Ballet was a sleepy regional company. Today, they are an international powerhouse with a $19.2 million budget and $57.6 million endowment. But this was only accomplished with hard work. San Antonio could do with a bit of that mojo. This is what Zertuche and Barker are striving for.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

The San Antonio Symphony is warming up in the orchestra pit under the baton of associate symphony conductor, Akiko Fujimoto.

Our local dance companies seldom have it in the budget to work with live music, so these performances are a double treat as our very own symphony musicians accompany this production. There is a life and breath that goes missing when one must resort to recorded music – a necessary evil that we must accept – but oh, the simple joy in the live performance of the very loved and familiar strains of Tchaikovsky are not to be taken for granted.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with the San Antonio Symphony during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

The lights dim, the music comes up, the curtain rises on the eccentric Herr Drosselmeyer in his workshop, and the magic begins.

This is a dress rehearsal, so small glitches are to be anticipated. Let me share with you that they are few. As my partner and photographer Page Graham snaps away with his camera backstage, I am seated in front of the lighting board, listening as the technical crew discusses and confirms cues so that the upcoming performances go off without a hitch.

The dancers are solid and sure in their roles. My favorite thing to do is to unfocus my eyes whenever the corps de ballet takes the stage.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham. Credit: Page Graham for the Rivard Report

The idea is perfect precision, and for the most part, this is achieved – though there will likely be notes from the director regarding any missteps in his ballet.

The children do very well in their roles. The young woman who plays Clara is quite lovely – a budding beauty with firm technique and very decent dramatic chops. She could go far, her soloist variations are strong.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

The coquettish pair of Mirlitons in book-matched precision. The pyrotechnics of the jumping, spinning, squatting Russian soloist – always an audience favorite. The snake-like, sinuous charm of the Arabian pas de deux. Dew Drop – absolutely yummy. And then there are our steadfast Principals in the Snow and Sugarplum pas de deux – all beautifully performed.

Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during "The Nutcracker" dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.
Backstage at the Majestic with Ballet San Antonio during “The Nutcracker” dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

Ballet San Antonio is hoping for an opportunity to work their magic on you. There are still tickets available for Saturday, Nov. 30 as well as the Dec. 6-8 performances. Visit www.balletsanantonio.org for more information.

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession brought changes, and now she’s back and discovering the art world of San Antonio, one happening at a time. The Rivard Report is one place that you can follow her trail, as is www.artblogsa.com.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...