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Dennis Nahat, Artistic Director, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley

Knowing Nahat’s 'Nutcracker'

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

December 2004

Amid the atmosphere of the orchestra warming and tuning up and of the press and flurry of backstage activity of the opening night of Nutcracker, we met with Ballet San Jose’s Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer Dennis Nahat.

DS/FT:  How did you get started choreographing?

DN: I’ve been choreographing since I was fairly young – 11 – and had to make up dances as a student in Detroit. I fell into it more while at school at Juilliard. While I do work at it, it does come fairly easily and readily to me. I don’t have steps in mind in advance, although I do dream patterns in my sleep sometimes!

I know the dancers and there is some give and take in the process. The individual steps to me are not all that important. What is important is what looks good on the dancers, so I do have them in mind when choreographing. Most ballets I do are ones that I need to do for the Company, filling in the needs of the repertory. I have many ideas on the shelf – and have had for years – which are waiting for the right time. I have to weigh the needs of the box office, audience, repertoire, and dancers.

Please tell us what makes your "Nutcracker" special.

I like to tell the story really clearly. As Drosselmeyer, I come out in front of the curtain and explain where the Nutcracker came from; it’s history.

In our version, there is no Land of Sweets. Instead, in Act II they travel from land to land, bringing the Nutcracker back to his native land. There are 10 scenic changes and I’ve added other Tchaikovsky music to lengthen some of the dances. The Nutcracker is actually the transformed son – a prince – of the Tsar and Tsarina and they celebrate his return to Muscovy and of Marie’s bringing him home. I wanted the story to be more real and felt more dancing was needed. I prefer to tell the story from beginning to end and include a lot more dancing.

Our mice come out of the woodwork – literally! – and include all lower division children from our School, for about 150 mice total, between all casts. They get bigger and bigger. The production is a collaboration with scenic designer David Guthrie. I’ve done the part of Drosselmeyer for 26 years and Karen Gabay is marking her 25th year as Marie! And it’s the 25th anniversary too of our wonderful conductor, Dwight Oltman.

Everyone who knew Lucia Chase has a story about her. Could you please regale us with one?

Lucia Chase. [pauses] Once while on tour, she went out front to make notes – this was for Swan Lake – and everyone was onstage warming up. The principals wanted space so she called everyone together and told them they were never going to perform these steps anyway, so please get off the stage! [Laugher] She didn’t speak to corps members, acknowledged soloists, and revered the principals. She was a very honorable and wonderful person.

How are things going here?

Ballet San Jose has been a big part of the rebirth of the arts in San Jose. I feel it is on a roll right now. We’ve gone through some tough times, but the Company never dies and we find ways to make it work. I believe dance can and needs to be flexible. Dancers are very resilient. Our staff is the smallest in size it’s ever been, but the dancers – 32 of them – are performing beautifully and we’re also pleased to be able to augment with extras from the School for Nutcracker. There are 6 casts and 7 Tsar/Tsarinas. I like lots of rotation and for everyone to help out. We even have Roni Mahler and Raymond Rodriguez in the show!

Noel Mason was one of my teachers at Cornish College in Seattle and I know you two were in the Joffrey Ballet together. When we interviewed Mr. Arpino earlier this Summer (‘04), he told a lovely story about her waltzing with President Kennedy at the White House. I’d like to hear another Noel story, please.

Noel and I danced together. Once we were in a Glen Tetley piece called "Games of Noah" and while performing at Jacob’s Pillow, she accidently broke my big toe with her pointe shoe! I had two more ballets to do and no understudy, so Mr. Joffrey’s secretary gave me some aspirin and I washed it down with what I found out later was straight gin! It did get me through the performance. [Laugher]

For a review of Dennis Nahat's "The Nutcracker," please click here.

Edited by Jeff.


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