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Cracking Nutcracker

A Tribute to Lucy Harpel Shriver...dancer, teacher, friend

by Dean Speer

September 2008

Two weeks before she passed on, my dear friend, colleague and one of my successor directors of the Chehalis Ballet Center, Lucy (Harpel) Shriver called me and asked in a clear, strong voice, “Dean, will you do Nutcracker?”  Of course, I said yes – and for the next few months, I lived, ate and breathed this ballet.

Lucy was probably the best successor director to grace the doors of the ballet center.  She combined a background of professional training and performing with wit, humor, good nature, and a beauty of spirit and soul that worked well in this setting.  She was able to broker deals, get recalcitrant students and parents to do and see things beyond themselves, and she was fun.

I first espied Lucy when I made a trek out to a small village east of Chehalis, the low mountain town of Mossyrock, where her family owned and operated the local movie theatre.  This was her only connection to show business since retiring from performing and moving to Malibu from the East Coast to raise her young family.  I recall her genuine and radiant smile glowing and lighting up the box office and how she introduced the movie and did a drawing for free popcorn.

I later found out from her husband (their bicycle shop was located on the ground floor next to our studio door) that Lucy had been a dancer.  I thought, “Ah, hah!”  After introducing myself, I invited her up to the studio office to chat and to get to know each other.  She declined my initial offer of teaching, as she said she’d never taught before, and with the exception of taking an aerobics class in California before moving to their Mossyrock farm, hadn’t done anything with dance since leaving the stage.

However, she did say that she’d be interested in taking a class. At the time, our Saturday morning Company Class was combined with the Intermediate/Advanced Ballet class.  Lucy showed up one Saturday morning and took barre.  I could tell right away she’d had correct and beautiful training and that her line and “look” was still there underneath.  She had real technique and class.

Lucy’s story is an inspiration in itself.  Of how a young and talented woman from Olympia, Washington could make her way, on her own, to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she took classes all day, every day for a year. She told me, “Dean, all I did was take classes, and then go home.” She then went on to SAB (School of American Ballet) where she also did the same for a year.  She then danced in Broadway musicals and with Jimmy Durante in his reviews from 1960-68.

Once she did start teaching, she became a teacher’s teacher and a mentor to up-and-coming younger generations.  She never stopped learning and would attend teachers’ seminars and workshops and always took great delight and pleasure in this knowledge.  It was as if she were being handed a present and treated it like a precious gift.  One of the loveliest compliments she ever paid me was when she observed, “How I wish I had started teaching 20 years earlier!”  She was having so much fun and loving the joy of teaching.

Out of the studio, some of the best times we had together were on the train platform while I was waiting for the northbound Amtrak.  We’d compare jazz styles – Mattox versus Luigi – contracting while moving a leg across, or talk shop about the latest ballets or shows we’d seen, and what had recently inspired us.

When it became clear that she’d not be able to direct that year’s production of Nutcracker (first created by her predecessor director, former PNB Principal Hugh Bigney), I was all too happy to rise to the challenge.

Marcia, the Managing Director and I worked closely to pull this balletic rabbit out of the hat – and it came off well.  I was so proud of each cast member, crew, and volunteer.  It was a testament to the community spirit in dance and a moving tribute to one of our own: Lucy.

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