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Some Enchanted Evening: Diane Lauridsen and South Bay Ballet

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Clara (Daisy Jacobson) is directed by her eccentric godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, in the second act of “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Michael Khoury

Home to South Bay Ballet for the past 13 years, the dance studio on Sartori Avenue in Old Torrance is in a building with a long and storied past. It may have been a bank, says the company’s founder and artistic director Diane Lauridsen; it was probably several different clothing stores; and it was a thrift shop when she purchased it. A building with a past, but it is also where young ballerinas dream big and prepare for their futures.

 

From the ground up

Once again, Diane Lauridsen is getting set for the school’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” that perennial holiday favorite about a young girl escorted to the Kingdom of Sweets by the Nutcracker Prince, where she becomes a grown-up, full-fledged ballerina. There are three shows this weekend in Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College.

Did you begin as a dancer?

“I was a professional dancer,” Lauridsen replies, “and then I came back to get married and have a family. I always knew that I would teach; even when I was studying I was an assistant teacher. And I had ideas about what I wanted to do differently as a teacher.

“It’s been 35 years since I started the studio in a tiny place down the street, and this is our third studio on the street. We’ve outgrown it, but I don’t see any possibility of expanding at this point since it’s taken me my whole life to get this one.”

And during the course of so many years?

“It has gone from a little neighborhood school to really a nationally and internationally recognized place,” Lauridsen adds. “If you have students who want to be professionals in a field that is so incredibly competitive, then the whole school has to hold that standard all the time. And we do believe that anybody who studies should get the best possible training they can, even if they don’t have a lick of talent.”

We are joined by Elijah Pressman, the company’s assistant artistic director, who is also dancing the part of the Nutcracker Prince.

I assume you’ve been here quite a while?

“I started taking classes here when I was three-years-old; I’m 29 now,” Pressman says. “I went up through the ranks and started performing with the company. Started subbing a class here or there, running a few minutes of rehearsal on a little section, and gradually did more and more. Now I’m on staff, and I’m performing with the company.”

He is also, it appears, the artistic-director-in-waiting.

“I’ve always wanted someone who came up through the system,” Lauridsen says.

 

Butts in every seat

And on to South Bay Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

“We started out at the Armstrong Theatre, and then moved to El Camino,” Lauridsen explains. “We need the size of the venue at El Camino because ‘Nutcracker’ is a big show.”

Not too large of a venue?

“Well, you know, sometimes it’s a challenge getting a butt in every seat, but we need the large stage.”

Other companies present the same work. There must be plenty of competition?

“Oh, absolutely,” Lauridsen replies. “Every single little company and every single big company does ‘The Nutcracker’ – and it’s pretty much on the same weekend. ‘Nutcracker’ is a real American tradition; it’s a uniquely American theater experience to go to ‘The Nutcracker’ at Christmas, and everybody does it. And so, since there is that competition, we just make sure that we’re the best,” – she said modestly.

If you did this show in July it wouldn’t be the same as doing it in December.

“It would be kind of the same to me, I guess,” Lauridsen says with a smile. “But, no, people feel like it’s not Christmas without ‘Nutcracker,’ and we’re glad to do it.”

How much rehearsal time is there?

“We start in August. There are 111 dancers; it’s a two-hour show, so it takes a lot of time.”

“Just about every weekend between August and the show,” Pressman adds; “plenty of weeknights with shorter rehearsals as well. We (also) work on stuff on our own.”

“One of the things that makes Diane’s ‘Nutcracker’ distinctive is that the dancers are all trained here,” says Patricia Zieg, who’s been listening in; “they’re all students here.”

“We start out at the beginning with rehearsals in all three rooms,” Lauridsen says. “At the beginning we have short little rehearsals for the youngest people. At the end everybody stays the entire time and we go all the way through it. We try to make it not quite so time-intensive at the very beginning, but it is a lot to do.”

The show has remained fairly consistent over the years?

“Year to year it’s pretty consistent,” Pressman says. “We make some adjustments based on the particular cast we have, and we try to refine it a little every year. We’ve tried to make the whole thing very cohesive, very accessible.”

“We don’t want to mess with it too much,” adds Lauridsen. “People expect what they expect.”

So nothing like opera where “Don Giovanni” may be set in a Laundromat?

“Sometimes people do theMidwest‘Nutcracker’ or the cowboy ‘Nutcracker’ or the perverted ‘Nutcracker’ or whatever,” Lauridsen replies, “and I think that dancers get bored with it because they know it so well. And some places have a lot of money to redo the sets and costumes every year or two, although we spend a lot of care trying to get that right.

“But ‘Nutcracker’ is a tradition, and we’re trying to value the tradition that’s in ballet. It’s a 500-year-old tradition and we try to keep it relevant.”

 

After the holidays

What other works do you present during the course of the year?

“We do three separate sets of things,” Lauridsen says. “We do something called ‘Bravo!’ which is an eclectic mix of classical and modern ballet.” With outside choreographers brought in. “We have some things that we rotate in and out of the show, and some things that are always premieres. And then we do a storybook ballet, and we have four of those that we rotate. This year it’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and that’s the first weekend in June.” Or, more precisely, June 1 and 2. “Bravo!” is set for March 2 and 3.

“You know,” she continues, “a lot of people have seen ‘The Nutcracker.’ Some people have only seen bad ‘Nutcrackers,’ and they think they hate ballet. Which is a shame. People are often surprised that they got dragged to the ballet and that they really like it. We urge everybody to at least give it a try to see something else besides ‘The Nutcracker.’”

As for this weekend’s production –

“There’s something in it for everyone,” Pressman says. “A couple of days ago we did a little preview performance at a school with fencing, and little boys who are usually rolling their eyes and bored with ballet were absolutely engaged and on the edge of their seats.”

“And if you came,” Lauridsen says, “you’ll understand it.”

South Bay Ballet presents The Nutcracker, choreographed by Charles Maple, on Friday at 7, Saturday at 2, and Sunday at 2 p.m. in Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd, Torrance (at the corner of Redondo Beach and Crenshaw boulevards). Daisy Jacobson is Clara, Yumi Kanazawa is the Sugar Plum Fairy, Mayu Odaka is the Snow Queen, Delaney Zieg is the Arabian Princess, and Elijah Pressman himself is the Nutcracker Prince. In the guest role of Grandmother Clara is Carolyn Brewer, wife of Torrance City Councilman Tom Brewer. Tickets, $30 general; $20 children 12 and under. (310) 329-5345 or go to centerforthearts.org. 

 

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