As the end-of-the-year holidays swing into view, so do the cherished cultural markers of the season, like A Christmas Carol, The Messiah and that much-loved ballet with music by Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker.
Residents of Westchester County are lucky enough to have a distinguished yet affordable Nutcracker on our doorstep, courtesy of the 72-year-old, Ossining-based Westchester Ballet Company, established as the leading regional company in Westchester for its high level of classical ballet training and professional productions.
This year’s Nutcracker, at the Lehman Center on Dec. 16, 17 and 18, will be performed by WBC’s current company of 84 dancers, aged from 5 to 18 years, and drawn mainly from the River Towns. The youngest, who are not yet “en pointe,” bring little experience to their roles as mice but must still be able to tell their left from their right and follow direction. The older performers, who must be enrolled in an intensive ballet training program in order to be eligible to perform with the company, are putting in between 12 and 15 hours of practice per week, in addition to two to three hours of rehearsals over 12 weeks, preparing for The Nutcracker. Over the years they rise through the ranks – junior company, junior intermediate and so on – performing bigger parts, and eventually some achieve principal roles, awarded according to their skills.
This year, the main female role of Clara is being danced by Lily Rivera, an Ossining resident and sophomore at Kennedy High School. “She has exquisite technique and theatricality and is an incredible ambassador for ballet generally and our company in particular,” says Amy Harte, president of the WBC’s board of directors.
Clara’s brother Fritz will be danced by Favio Lalvay, a freshman at Croton Harmon High School, the first American-born child from his family. “It’s a cheeky role that requires a lot acting on stage, which is something difficult to ask of young children, many of whom can be hesitant. But not Favio, who brings real personality to the role,” comments Harte.
Both Rivera and Lalvay have been with WBC for years, putting in the hard work but also benefiting from the experience of being in a company, performing in professional productions on a huge stage before large audiences. “Our dancers go on to be professional performers, doctors, teachers, or leaders in the community,” Harte adds, “all benefiting from the skill set that ballet brings – healthy minds and bodies, self-confidence – and learning to collaborate with a truly diverse group, meeting fellow dancers whom they might not otherwise encounter and making life-long friendships.”
Although December’s Nutcracker is the crown jewel of the repertoire, WBC performs throughout the year, offering a performance from its repertoire in April. More unusually, in 2021 it developed a new piece, titled Got My Wings, in collaboration with composer Daniel Blake and choreographers Todd Hall and Tomiko Magario, based on the work of Jarvis Jay Masters, the writer and Buddhist who has been on death row for 32 years.
“Covid cracked things open for us and broke down barriers,” Harte comments about this departure from mainstream, storytelling ballet in the direction of social justice. Got My Wings will be performed in Katonah in January 2023 in collaboration with the Creative Alliance Project, and later in the spring at various local venues.
Offering financial assistance based on need, and scholarships based on talent, the WBC is a portal to cultural and social enrichment for young people in our community. Not every dancer will grow into the treasured role of Sugar Plum Fairy like Erina Tanaka, a graduate of WBC and now a professional dancer who returns to perform that part in this year’s Nutcracker. But the opportunities for engagement, both for dancers and the general public are well proven and of lasting significance. As Harte observes, “We never know where these experiences with the ballet company will take our young dancers, but we know it will serve them well, and that our entire community benefits when we support the arts.”