Susan Brooker sets the artistic vision for the school which includes opportunities that prepare a young dancer for a professional career.
When it comes to grand holiday productions, American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) “The Nutcracker” holds a distinctive position in Orange County.
The upcoming performance of the classic ballet – which opens Friday and continues through Dec. 17 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts – marks the eighth season in which Costa Mesa is the exclusive holiday home for America’s National Ballet Company (which ABT was designated as in 2006 by Congress). This annual appearance is part of an ongoing relationship between Segerstrom Center and the New York City-based ballet company and it designates Orange County as a hub for respectable training and serious appreciation of professional dance.
The appointment of Susan Brooker to the role of artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School this past August was another step by Segerstrom and ABT to solidify Southern California as a destination for world-class dance and dance training.
Brooker has worked alongside several dance companies and schools in Europe and the United States, including serving as the director of ABT’s exclusive educational affiliate school, University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNSCA). In her new role, Brooker oversees all levels of the ABT Gillespie school, as well as the OC Young Dancer Summer Workshop, master class series, and summer dance programs at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
“I feel that all of the administration at Gillespie as well as ABT has identified developing the school as a priority,” Brooker said.
She also said that many recent changes in leadership at the ABT company, including having the new artistic director Susan Jaffe at the helm, have reinvigorated efforts to make the Gillespie School and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) in New York more connected.
“The schools were always intended to be sister schools,” Brooker said, citing plans for master classes at the Gillespie school by JKO artistic director Stella Abrera and other faculty exchanges from school to school.
Brooker herself is intimately familiar with ABT’s national curriculum, having served as part of the original advisory board, and she is deeply familiar with what Jaffe looks for in a dancer, having been a colleague of hers at UNSCA. Under Brooker's leadership, the Gillespie School is entering a phase marked by a pragmatic fusion of expertise and a concrete path toward professional success.
The Role ‘The Nutcracker’ Plays in a Dancer’s Career
Just as it’s impossible to imagine “The Nutcracker” without Tchaikovsky's iconic score or the Rat King, it’s inconceivable to think of this ballet without children. Young Clara, the Nutcracker Boy, Fritz, and the Little Mouse are leading roles for young dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s version of the classic story. The leads are joined by groups of children for ensemble roles throughout, making for a total of over 40 children in the cast.
It was George Balanchine who made “The Nutcracker” a storied holiday tradition in America when his version of the production for the New York City Ballet premiered in 1954. Having grown up dancing in the show as a child himself, Balanchine believed it was important to create many roles for children so that it helped younger audience members connect with the ballet (and also so one could count on ticket sales for at least four audience members per child performer). Today, the magic of “The Nutcracker” is still wrapped up in that juvenile warmth and the ability to trigger a joyful holiday memory.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is usually the first ballet that a child sees when they are very young. It's full of magic and wonder and a story of family and fairytales,” Jaffe said. “Oftentimes while I'm attending a performance, I spend a lot of time watching the children look up at the stage as their hearts and imaginations are taken to new heights.”
Although painted with the hues of holiday cheer, “The Nutcracker” transcends the confines of a mere "children's ballet." It's not just about sugarplum fantasies, it's a pivotal chapter in the education of young ballet dancers – a delicate dance between tradition and transformation.
“Students have the opportunity to dance in many different roles in the ballet as they get older, and it is a ballet that can make them stronger, technically and artistically. Then, when a dancer gets hired into the professional world, ‘The Nutcracker’ is usually performed by all ballet companies in the United States,” Jaffe said. “So, I can safely say, for any ballet dancer, ‘The Nutcracker’ has been the only ballet they have been connected to and danced all of their lives.”
As such, “The Nutcracker” isn't just a holiday performance, it's a rite of passage. A journey that propels aspiring dancers from studio mirrors to the grandeur of the stage. For students of the Gillespie School, the annual show provides an unrivaled opportunity to work alongside seasoned professionals.
“Students with a goal to be a professional dancer get a real taste of how rehearsals work, how the professionals act. They get to be on stage with ABT and have real contact with the company dancers,” Brooker said.
She went on to point out that “The Nutcracker” teaches young performers important lessons for life – discipline, hard work and how to follow instructions, among them. And also, hopefully, to appreciate and support the arts.
“I equate it to eating fast food. If one eats too much, your taste can become completely warped,” Brooker said. “But when you’re working with top-quality artists like these students get to, your whole perception of this art form and others becomes refined. You are able to recognize real professionalism and support it.”
Brooker now has four months under her belt at the Gillespie School and says she could go on and on about her ideas for the program. Her immediate goal, though, is to make the school more prominent in the Orange County community.
Alluding to COVID being a factor in some of the growing pains of the school – Segerstrom Center was more cautious with regards to opening back up for on-campus classes than other schools in the area – Brooker is ready to find more performance opportunities and ways to engage with the community.
“I hope to make the Gillespie School more of an integral part of the Center,” Brooker said. “We won’t stray from our core mission, but there are so many overlapping areas where we can be supporting other parts of Segerstrom while at the same time creating opportunities for the students.”
She is also passionate about helping students find a home at Gillespie from an early age so that they find success in the program which starts for children as young as 3 years old.
“Where a student starts their training can define their whole dance career,” Brooker said. “We want to teach students how to keep the sense of joy in dance as it becomes more technical and a more serious form of study.”
“Long-term, we’re building for a future. Eventually, I want to be unnecessary to the school. I feel a real sense of respect from everyone and it’s a wonderful position in which to be – now I’ve got to prove it.”