“Brush; hop; brush; step; step.”
In her self-constructed and self-styled studio, Megan Yackovich of Ballet Taos is busy guiding her troupe through rehearsal for their production of Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday ballet, “A Nutcracker Suite.”
Against the backdrop of one of the world’s most recognizable classical scores, the troupe is rehearsing Act I’s engaging party scene in which the Christmas tree is lit, gifts are distributed to delighted children and adults dance in celebration of the season’s most festive evening.
And as the rehearsal continues, the dancers – some en pointe and some not — are milling about the studio stretching, memorizing stage and prop cues, hugging each other, offering encouragement, asking how to better time their moves and, in the case of the very young ones, scampering about in their glittery tulle or mouse masks for the next act.
These are thoroughly charming moments, but not unexpected ones as performers in this beloved ballet go through the rigors of practice and backstage preparation.
Because Yackovich and Creative Director Carpio Bernal of Taos Pueblo are running the show, the audience will be surprised to find that the action taking place is not within the centuries-old, Romantic-era setting everyone has come to expect.
They’ll be witnessing the classic story unfold in the salon of Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Tony Luhan.
Welcome to “A New Mexico Nutcracker.”
This outstandingly creative production will premier Saturday (Dec. 16) with both a matinée at 2 p.m. and an evening performance at 7 p.m. Additional performances are scheduled through Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), all at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
Amid her dancers, Yackovich explained, “Ballet Taos [wants to give the audience] an original, vibrant rendition of this holiday ballet classic. ‘A New Mexico Nutcracker’ takes place in the thriving art colony of Taos, New Mexico, around the turn of the 20th century.”
“Mabel Dodge Lujan, Maria – the daughter of a chile farmer – and historical Taos characters gather to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. After a lively evening of gifts and dance, Maria’s dream begins. Taos Mesa comes to life with a surreal battle between nature’s desert creatures,” including, of course, the expected rodents and tarantulas.
She continued, “As led by the Hawk Kachina and Coyote King, the creatures are given a choice of red chile, green chile or Christmas. Peace is restored as snow begins to fall on Taos Mountain.
“With her Hawk Kachina by her side, Maria emerges as the lovely Butterfly Kachina and travels across the beautiful Northern New Mexico landscape. Snowflakes, flamenco dancers, a hoop dancer from Taos Pueblo and Georgia O’Keeffe-like flowers are just a few breathtaking scenes Maria experiences along the way,” Yackovich said.
Publicity for this event notes that in “this powerful coming of age tale, images of landscape paintings from the original Taos Society of Artists and living Taos artists fill each backdrop.” It further invites audiences to take “a leap back in time and celebrate the art, diverse culture and history that makes our community truly unique.”
Ballet Taos makes that an irresistible invitation.
Though the party scene at Luhan’s house will be set upon the stage, the battle scene backdrops will be provided by the projection of remarkable landscape paintings provided by famed Taos artist Don Ward, who is represented locally by Parson’s Gallery of the West.
Yackovich also noted that Robert Parsons is providing projected images from his renowned gallery, Robert Parsons Fine Art, featuring a premier collection of paintings from the historically significant Taos Society of Artists.
Beyond the sophistication of the production itself is the energy that emanates from the performers gathering in Ballet Taos’ studio. The youngest dancers project the same professional intensity as the older students, and the air is permeated with energy, joy and ambition.
“For the parents whose children want to be a part of Ballet Taos, I think the grueling rehearsal and performance schedule was a kind of reckoning,” Yackovich laughed. “But no one has complained; this is the life of a professional dancer and if this is the student’s goal, then everyone understands that.”
It’s affirmed by the absolute joy of watching these members perform. One doesn’t see denial or deprivation; one sees dedication and delight.
This is, after all, the mission of Ballet Taos. “Our programs are intensive and focused,” said Yackovich. “But if our students truly want to pursue a dancing career, then that’s what we need to do to provide them with the skills they need to navigate the professional world.” Indeed, the mission of Ballet Taos is to ensure their artists are coached to be “technically precise, rhythmically sound, artful and spirited in movement.”
“It’s an experience of learning about yourself, what your body is capable of and where your ambition can take you,” said Bernal. “By exploring all aspects, and with our individualized attention to each student, we can make them well-rounded and ready to tackle the professional world.”
In addition to choreographers Yackovich and Bernal (who also guest stars as Tony Luhan), the very talented troupe includes guest artists Kate Martin (Mabel Dodge Luhan), Serena Smith (Virginia Adams), Adam Overly-Black (Ansel Adams), Caroline Colonna (Georgia O’Keeffe), Julia Fernández de Maez, Winterbear Suazo, and Emileah Lujan.
Principal dancers include Mary Jensen (Grand Pas de Deux/ Sugar Plum Fairy), Zeeme Alarcón (Grand Pas de Deux/ Cavalier), Jamie Jensen (Maria/ Clara), and Kelden Larsen (Kachina Hawk/ Nutcracker Prince).
Soloists are Athena Dunleavy, Madeleine Larsen, Laryssa Short, Bodhi Fogden and Daisy Kirshbaum. The Corps de Ballet include Sasha Kushner, Claudine Waggoner, Uma Abad, Mina Tran-Nguyen and Isabella Famiglietti.
Apprentices are Dascha Pellerin, Quinn Davis, Nichola Davis and Willow Bowman. Young artists are Perry Kushner, Simone Davis, Anna Hastings and Anastacia Refelovre.
As a number in Act II’s rehearsal fumbles and must be re-choreographed, Yackovich – a seasoned professional and classically trained ballerina — said to her crew, “I know it sometimes feels like it won’t come together in time for our performances, but it will because I’ve never worked with a more capable cast of dancers and actors.”
The young faces surrounding her glowed with pride, and it’s a pride rightfully earned.
In addition to Saturday’s performances, there will be an encore Sunday (Dec. 17) at 7 p.m. Performances will also take place on the weekend leading up to Christmas Eve. For a complete schedule of dates and times, please visit ballettaos.com. Dates and times are also available on their Facebook page, and from the TCA.
Tickets are $20, $15 for youth under 18, with the exception of Christmas Eve, Sunday (Dec. 24), when all tickets will be $20 for both the 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. performances. Veterans and seniors attend all shows for $15.
Tickets may be purchased in advance or on the day of the show at the auditorium box office or the Taos Center for the Arts, 133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For more information, call (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org or ballettaos.com.