Family sees three generations through ‘The Nutcracker’

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Third generation of “Polichinelles” dance in Westside Ballet’s 36th incarnation of “The Nutcracker.”

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

There have been notable first families of the American stage and screen. The Barrymores, starting with John and ending with Drew, spring to mind. Screen dynasties like the Fondas (Henry, Jane, Peter and Bridget) or film star siblings like John and Joan Cusack resonate. Then there are the familial dynasties of dance.

In the Westside Ballet’s first annual performance of “The Nutcracker” in 1973, Caprice Walker danced the role of “Mirliton.” And her eight-year-old daughter, Kylie, danced as one of the “Polichinelles”-the Commedia dell’arte stock character envisioned in “The Nutcracker” as a tiny chick hiding under the huge skirts of Mother Ginger.

At the appropriate moment in Act II, after Mother Ginger is wheeled on stage (in the past, she has been played by a man and her costume is usually fairly elaborate to accommodate a half-dozen Polichinelles), a tiny curtain in the front of the skirt parts to allow the chicks to emerge and dance around the mother hen.

Thirty-five years later, Kylie’s own daughter, Tara, is playing another generation of Polichinelle in Westside Ballet’s 36th incarnation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic.

“There are three effects in ‘The Nutcracker’ that everyone waits to see,” said Caprice Walker, associate artistic director of Westside Ballet. “The Christmas tree that grows to giant size in the first act, the falling snow with ‘Dance of the Snowflakes’ and Mother Ginger. She’s always been a part of our performance.”

Westside Ballet, under the direction of founder Yvonne Mounsey, has always included “The Nutcracker” in the season’s repertoire. Indeed, many ballet companies base their financial solvency on a successful “Nutcracker” run each year.

Since Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa, St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre ballet master, first conceived “The Nutcracker” in 1892, the story has morphed into countless stage, film and recorded versions, from Disney’s classic animated film “Fantasia” to a boogie piano arrangement titled “Nut Rocker” covered by ’70s progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Tchaikovsky was not keen on this piece, believing it was one of his lesser ballet efforts. He never experienced its worldwide popularity.

“I think that’s because ‘The Nutcracker’ is not your typical ballet, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Swan Lake'” Walker said. “Also, he was quite under Petipa’s thumb, who insisted that movements should be written to precise counts.”

Walker pointed out that Tchaikovsky introduced a new instrument to the orchestral world when he discovered a celesta, an instrument that looks like a large wooden music box, and produces a high-pitched, ringing timbre, perfect for scoring the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”

The goal of most ballerinas is to dance the role of the Sugarplum Fairy and most usually begin their dancing careers as Polichinelle.

“I brought Tara to dance rehearsals when she was three months old and she enrolled in classes at age five,” Kylie (now known as Kylie Walker Larkin) said. “She was practically born in the ballet ‘tent,’ like a circus family’s. Any child who is lucky enough to dance or even see this ballet, it just stays with you always. Everyone knows the music.”

Larkin danced throughout her childhood, but stopped when she decided to go to college and pursue a career. She now works in Dean Kenneth Starr’s office at Pepperdine University’s School of Law.

But she continues to work with Westside Ballet as a rehearsal assistant alongside her mother, Caprice Walker, putting a new generation of Polichinelles through their paces.

Nine-year-old Tara, a student at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School, is ecstatic to be dancing in “The Nutcracker.”

“I want to make dancing my career,” she said. “I love how ballet is so graceful. The best part of ‘Nutcracker’ is when everyone is so surprised to see the Polichinelles come out from Mother Ginger’s skirt.”

Tara’s grandmother mused when asked why “The Nutcracker” was such a perennial favorite: “Maybe because it speaks to so many aspects of children’s lives,” she said. “You have a sister and a brother who don’t get along in the story, the wonder of Christmas and the holiday season. And then magic occurs. The music is so gorgeous. So families keep going back to it.”

And it seems the Walker family tradition will carry on. Larkin’s younger daughter, Mikaela, will dance in next year’s “The Nutcracker.”

“She’ll be eight then.” Larkin said. “She’ll probably dance Polichinelle.”

Westside Ballet will stage “The Nutcracker” in four performances Nov. 29 and 30 at Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre and another four performances Dec. 13 and 14 at Brentwood’s Wadsworth Theatre. Tickets for Westside Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” can be obtained by calling 310.828.6211 or online at www.westsideballet.com or www.ticketmaster.com.