Inland Pacific Ballet Gearing Up for Holiday Classic
Arcadia-Born Dancer to Perform at Arcadia High First Time Since 1980
By Courtney Blackburn
The tall red curtains at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center will soon part to usher in a holiday classic: The Nutcracker, performed by critically acclaimed Inland Pacific Ballet. This year, IPB is bringing The Nutcracker to Arcadia hot on the heels of Thanksgiving for Nov. 28-29, and then carrying the production onward to Claremont, Riverside, and Rancho Cucamonga.
The Nutcracker ballet, based on the 1816 short story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, tells the tale of Clara, whose mysterious uncle Drosselmeyer gives her a Nutcracker doll for Christmas. Little does she know that the Nutcracker is an enchanted prince, and to restore his true form he must battle the wicked Mouse-King. After the villain is defeated, the Prince takes Clara on a magical journey to the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy arranges wondrous sights and breathtaking dances in their honor.
This year’s lavish production will feature “falling snow, an antique original Albany Flyer One Horse Open Sleigh, a 40-foot Chinese Dragon, beautiful costumes handmade in-house at IPB’s costume department, and a cast of 80 dancers. New to this year’s production is a completely re-choreographed Snow Scene for an expanded cast of 20 and a brand new lighting design.”
It is hard to say enough nice things about Inland Pacific Ballet. Their publicist is warm and accommodating; their Artistic Director sweet, silver-haired, and gracious. Their huge facility in Montclair is a converted warehouse that resembles an airplane hangar, with maze-like corridors, clean white studios, a costume workshop, gift store, and a welcoming foyer always covered in dancers. Their ballet master rides a Harley. Their teachers are knowledgeable former professionals. And their young talent is so collectively cute, I couldn’t tear my photographer away to get some shots of the glamorous principal dancers.
Last year, we went “behind the curtains” at IPB in preparation for 2014’s Nutcracker. It went so well, we did it again. On Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, we descended on Arrow Highway in Montclair to see the work being done behind the scenes to bring 2015’s The Nutcracker to life.
A rehearsal of the Snow Scene was underway in the main studio. Young ladies in black leotards and multi-colored knit legwarmers stretched and leapt through the air. Outside, Ballet Master Clinton Rothwell was just leaving. A ballet master teaches classes, conducts rehearsals, coaches, and works one-on-one with particular roles – in Clinton’s case, Clara, Fritz, and the Cavalier. Clinton is a character: big, gentle, and dignified, an artistic Santa Claus. Unlike some other ex-dancers, he doesn’t appear on stage in character parts: “When I quit dancing, I walked off the professional stage.” But his knowledge of ballet, he said, was like a fine wine that gets better with time. “All through my career working with choreographers, you learn all that from the best. Then I get to give it to young people. … I love teaching.” Clinton did, however, recently choreograph a contemporary piece for academy apprentice Lauren Collett in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix.
When asked if he gets tired of the same Christmas production year after year, Clinton smiled. “When I was a dancer, I did Nutcracker 27 times every year.” But continual tweaks to the choreography make it “fresh and new – constantly improving.”
“Our kids are talented this year. It’s really good to see. And it’s good stage experience for the kids. A Christmas tradition.” The conversation after that involved Mexican food and ketchup, then Clinton took his leave and strode off to his Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked out front.
Through a sliding doorway, Ballet Mistress Jill Voznick took a break from rehearsing the Battle Scene to rope her husband, Arcadia-born Steven Voznick, into a sit-down.
Steve’s parents are longtime Arcadia residents of more than 40 years (mom Jean Voznick even started Arcadia High’s Orchesis dance company – what are the odds?). Steve took ballet while at Arcadia High and then went on to U.C. Irvine. He has danced professionally with the Hartford Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, and Arizona Ballet. Different companies have different styles and repertoires, and after 3-4 years dancers may be ready to move on. Apparently, men move around more than women, owing to the short supply.
Jill, a former pro with the Joffrey and Atlanta Ballets, met Steve when their respective companies put on a joint tour of Swan Lake. She was the company rep for the Atlanta Ballet. Steve was the rep for the Cleveland Ballet. “We fell in love fighting,” Jill said with a laugh. After the tour, both companies celebrated their wedding.
After professional careers, Steve and Jill moved with their young daughter back to California. They discovered Inland Pacific Ballet while looking for ballet classes for their then-four-year-old, who is now studying for a dance career at Marymount College in New York.
“I met Victoria in a class … she wrangled me into the Party Scene in the Nutcracker years ago, then I ended up partnering all the tall girls.”
“Just sort of kismet,” Jill chimed in.
“Ballet is a small world,” Steve affirmed.
Jill was drawn in to IPB just as deeply, first as a substitute teacher, now as Co-Director and Ballet Mistress.
Steve’s turn as Drosselmeyer in this 2015 Nutcracker will be his Arcadia homecoming. “Last time I performed in Arcadia, I was in high school there, in 1980. I think I even have a yearbook photo in tights.”
I asked, “So are your parents coming to the performance?”
Hundreds of yards away in the twisting labyrinth of backstage, Jeanne Nolden – costume designer and volunteer – was working on last-minute fittings with her cheerful crew. Ancient sewing machines, mounds of tulle, and costumes galore surrounded them. Dancers were roped in for a minute or two with some measuring tape and a few stitches, and then released back to rehearsal.
The little students, preparing for their role as bon-bons, were in awe of the star dancers. When “Clara” walked by them, they stared, nudged each other, and whispered, “There’s Clara!”
In the main studio, understudies Madison (Clara) and Blake (the Prince) were practicing their pas de deux. The quality of those understudies, who looked like professional dancers, says something about the quality of Inland Pacific Ballet as a whole. And it’s a supportive place – we spotted Principal Dancer/Cavalier Cameron Schwanz stepping in give some pointers, and the rest of the company sat along the walls, watching eagerly and applauding whenever a particularly good move was made.
Meanwhile, back in the second studio, Dragon Master Kin Lam was overseeing practice of the Chinese Dance, a fast-paced number featuring a 40-foot silk Chinese Dragon. “Work on really jumping. Overall it’s really good. Any questions?
“Let’s do it again.”
Finally we caught up with Victoria Koenig, Artistic Director, who showed us a completely new side of Inland Pacific Ballet: the adjacent and overwhelmingly manly workshop of Robert Wollenzier, head carpenter, who is in charge of the sets and backgrounds – building, painting, transporting, and assembling at each venue. “Any projects you need done at home? Whatever we do, we do with theater magic.” Robert’s official title last year was Assistant Production Manager/Scenic Builder. He and his crew of around 15 do all the heavy lifting for IPB’s productions these past 6-7 years. He’s also quite the jokester – offered my photographer Zuleyka and me a starting wage of $15 an hour if we helped him weld. We reluctantly declined.
Before Victoria snuck back to rehearsal, she gave a quick update on the new and improved Snow Scene, “Well, there will be a lot more dancers on stage. Less time in the wings, more time dancing. And the movements are much more feminine; more fluid; more flow; more elegance. And more people mean more energy.”
And all this preparation – the aches and pains, the sweat, the endless repetition and frustration of learning to do everything perfectly; what is it all for?
Robert put it perfectly. “The benefit is knowing you make little children smile.”
Each year, a whole new audience gets to see The Nutcracker for the first time, and it is for them – and their parents – that IPB dedicates their talent, hard work, and heart.
A dazzling holiday tradition for the entire family, see The Nutcracker again or for the first time and be swept away in a winter wonderland.
Performances of The Nutcracker take place at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, 188 Campus Drive, Arcadia, CA 91007, Saturday, Nov. 28th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 29th at 2 p.m.; Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium, 450 North College Way, Claremont, CA 91711, Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 6th at 2 p.m.; Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside, CA 92501, Saturday, Dec. 12th at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 13th at 2 p.m.; and Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91739, Friday, Dec. 18th at 7:30 p.m., Saturday the 19th at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, the 20th at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $38 with senior/child/group discounts available. For more information and tickets, please go to IPBALLET.org.