The Westside Ballet presents a Christmas classic

“The Nutcracker” will be performed at Pepperdine this weekend and at the Wadsworth Theatre on Dec. 8 and 9.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky accepted the commission in 1891 to write his last ballet, “The Nutcracker,” he was not enthused with the project, writing resignedly to a friend, “I am daily becoming more… attuned to my task.”

Little did he know that this iconic oeuvre would become arguably the most popular ballet performed in Western culture and a staple around the Christmas holiday, with productions trotted out annually by every major (and minor) ballet company in this country. Indeed, many companies base their year’s operating budgets on the success of “The Nutcracker.”

The Westside Ballet Company is offering its traditional family-pleaser this year with its 35th production of “The Nutcracker” at the Smothers Theatre on the Pepperdine University Campus this weekend, and next month at the Wadsworth Theatre in West Los Angeles

The ballet’s story of a young girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince taking her to the Land of Sugar Plums stuffed with visions of dancing snowflakes, Russian Cossacks and Dew Drop Fairies, was used to score Disney’s 1940 animated film “Fantasia.”

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While “The Nutcracker” has been choreographed by many luminaries, most notably George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Westside Ballet’s version was created by Rosemary Valaire and “a bit by myself,” company founder Yvonne Mounsey said modestly.

Mounsey launched the Westside Ballet in 1969 following a career of startling terpsichorean collaborations. She first danced with the illustrious Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, the innovative ballet company established in Paris by Serge Diaghilev in 1909.

“Then, in 1949, Mr. B. saw me in a class and told me, ‘I’m starting a new ballet company. Would you like to join us?'” Mounsey recounted, referring to George Balanchine, arguably the man responsible for bringing ballet as an art form to this country.

Mounsey, originally from South Africa, agreed to join “Mr. B” and was one of the founding members of the legendary New York City Ballet. “There were only about 60 of us then,” she said. “Balanchine was simply wonderful to work with. He never got angry. But you better get it right.”

Mounsey spent 10 years with the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine created some of his signature dances for her, including for “Serenade” and the role of the Siren in “Prodigal Son.”

After her career on stage, she was asked to take over a ballet school in Santa Monica, then called the Brown Gable School. “There were brown gables on the roof of the building,” Mounsey said. “I renamed it the Westside Ballet.”

Her approach to the company’s version of “The Nutcracker” is based largely on the production created by William Christensen in 1944 for the San Francisco Ballet Company, the first complete production of “The Nutcracker” in the United States.

“We have close to 100 cast members on stage,” Mounsey said. “Of course, there are a lot of children. It has a very lavish look and a marvelous growing Christmas tree,” referring to the end of Act 1, when a holiday tree “grows” on stage, seemingly shrinking the little heroine, Clara, to the same size as the toys she just received for Christmas.

Mounsey acknowledged the challenge of keeping a traditional ballet fresh. “But we always add new touches and our dancers bring so much to each production,” she said.

Westside Ballet acts much like the New York City Ballet’s training academy, where students work assiduously and end up being invited to join that professional company or going on to other professional companies around the world.

Malibu resident Francine Kessler Lavac serves as artistic consultant and ballet mistress for the company, having studied at the Westside Ballet for several years.

“Yvonne was one of my first teachers, from age 10,” Lavac said. “She is a great artist and I owe my career success to her.”

Lavac danced as a soloist with the acclaimed Salt Lake City-based Ballet West and for televised specials such as “Baryshnikov and Hollywood.”

“I think our production is as good as you’re going to get without having a professional company,” Lavac said. “So many of our Westside dancers transition right into professional companies, so you’re getting pros before they are pros.”

With a traditional classic like “The Nutcracker,” Lavac says the challenge to find something new is always met because “the nature of ballet is not finite. A performance can always be better.”

She has passed her love of dance on to her 15-year-old daughter, Kira, who has studied with the Westside Ballet for 10 years and will be performing five roles in this production. Because “The Nutcracker” has its share of sumptuous ensemble dances, dancers in most productions are triple- and quadruple-cast.

“Seeing Kira carry on such a shared passion gives us an unspoken bonding,” Lavac said of her daughter. “It’s our gift to each other. Because she is so capable as a dancer, she’ll bring something entirely new to a role that I’ve seen danced before.”

Kira, a sophomore at Malibu High School, explained. “A dancer is not just your typical girl on the street. It helps you appreciate other things in life. Even if I don’t go on to dance professionally, all the time I’ve put into it is worth it.”

“The Nutcracker” will be performed at Pepperdines Smothers Theatre Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. The Wadsworth Theatre performances will take place Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 1 p.m and 5 p.m. For tickets,; www.westsideballet.com.

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