Kids get taste of dance life performing ‘The Nutcracker’

The holidays bring traditions such gathering around the table for favorite foods, the scent of the Christmas tree and performances of “The Nutcracker.”

The Las Vegas Ballet Company plans to present the traditional ballet at 7 p.m. Dec. 20, with 2 p.m. matinees scheduled Dec. 21-23 at the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center, 1771 Inner Circle Drive.

Headed by artistic director Kyudong Kwak and his wife, Yoomi Lee, the ballet company is the city’s largest nonprofit performing group and comprises children and teens. The show includes a handful of 5- to 8-year-olds.

Working with young children in a discipline such as ballet means knowing how to connect with them. Lee, who has graced the world’s stages as a principal dancer in many productions, said she has to keep instruction on their level.

“The young person has to understand what I ask of them,” she said. “Even though they may not understand with the body, they understand up here (in the brain) and later they show it. Even though they may not be able to do it now, later (when they’re older), they remember, and they can do it.”

In past shows, the youngest children have created some heart-stopping moments — entering from the wrong side or forgetting their steps. One child thought there was only one show and didn’t show up for the other performances.

“Without little ones, maybe it would be more professional but also not so much fun,” Lee said. “This is a family ballet. With children, it looks warm. The Kirov Ballet, all the parts are done by adults, and it’s so technically perfect. It looks perfect, but it doesn’t look real … which is sometimes not so much fun.”

An unforeseen pitfall of having little children in the cast: Parents who sneaked backstage to take photos of their child during the performance.

“You could see the flash going off when we were on stage,” Lee said. “We made a rule after that … no parents coming (backstage) unless they’re volunteers.”

New for the company’s production this year is the party scene in which the little children will be a part. Formerly, the ballet company covered it as a story time scene, a thrifty way to keep the storyline on track. It was decided to include the party this year even though the young dancers would have to learn more choreography.

Three teens in the production — Hina Agins, 17; Jacki DePari, 15, and Lea Agins, 14 — recalled being in “The Nutcracker” as little children.

“I remember looking at all the older kids and wanting to be just like them,” said Hina Agins, who began in “The Nutcracker” as a mouse when she was 8. “I couldn’t wait until I was that age. I was so inspired by them.”

How difficult was it as a child to pick up the steps?

“I wouldn’t really concentrate on the steps. I thought more about having fun with it,” said DePari, who was 8 and played a mouse her first year.

Lea Agins began as a bon bon at 5.

“When I went home, I told my parents how I couldn’t wait to be in pointe shoes,” said Lea Agins, who got her first pair at 11.

Lauren Tsung, 10, began ballet at 6. She recalled rehearsals being a bit of a test.

“My first time I was a soldier and a bon bon. All I remember is falling a lot when I (first) attempted to do cartwheels,” Lauren said.

Perhaps the child who felt the most pressure was Samuel Kwak, 11. He is the son of two ballet principal dancers and studies under them. He’s been in “The Nutcracker” for five years.

“They can be pretty tough,” Samuel said of his parents’ expectations for him. “The first year I did the Russian. We didn’t have the battle scene back then … Russian was pretty tiring at the end, but it was exciting being in a major performance.”

Kyudong Kwak said there was a lot of difference between little children and the teens in the production.

“The little ones don’t have a lot of ballet technique, so there’s not much they can do,” he said. “So I ask them to do the cartwheel. As they get older, they have more training in ballet, so I can teach them more. … The little ones have to have easy, easy choreography. But they have sometimes the thing the older one doesn’t. Sometimes they do a little mistake and it’s the most beautiful thing, so natural, so cute.”

“The Nutcracker” cast comprises about 40. Auditions were the second week of September.

The young students come on Saturdays and rehearse nearly two hours. Lee said her approach for coaching the little ones is to keep everything simple and done three times slower than for older children.

“With the little ones, if you do it over and over, they get tired, and it’s no fun,” she said. “Then I have to do something for fun, I have to mix it up or they get bored.”

Adding the party scene meant the youth company has more to do, but it meets to rehearse more often. That scene also required more props, more scenery and more costumes, which can cost as much as $25,000.

The little ones are called the children’s cast.

“It’s nice that the little kids are just as important as the big kids,” said Jeneane Huggins, whose child, Scarlett, 6, will be a bon bon, a mouse and an angel.

Tickets are $25 and $20 for seniors and students. A special performance for military families is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 19, with tickets for $3.

For tickets, call 866-967-8167 or visit lasvegasballet.org and under “Categories,” click on “Events.”

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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