It’s ‘Nutcracker’ Season
Charlys Ing and Hawaii Ballet Theatre celebrate 25 years of bringing the Christmas classic ‘The Nutcracker’ to Hawaii audiences
By Norise Jastillana
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The ‘Party Kids’: Alegre Bernstein, Elyssa Grief,
Kim Takata, Amanda Takeguchi, Krissy Saito,
Danielle Matsugu, Tiare Brown and Alix Camp
Each Christmas across the country, curtains rise on stages alight with swirling snowflakes, confections come to life, menacing mice, a Sugarplum Fairy, a Nutcracker Prince and a cast of colorful characters twirling and leaping and flying across the floor. It is The Nutcracker - a magical wonderland set to music that has enchanted audiences, young and old, for generations.
Here in Hawaii it is no different. For decades now, the beloved ballet has been charming local crowds. For Hawaii Ballet Theatre, one of a handful of local dance companies that stage the holiday classic, esprit de corps will run especially high this season - its 25th performing The Nutcracker.
In celebration, HBT is reuniting 135 former student dancers - an accomplished cast of company apprentices - for its silver anniversary production. Some have evolved from “bonbons” and “baby mice” to Broadway artists who’ve appeared in such productions as The Lion King and The King and I. For others - bankers, teachers and accountants among them - dance remains a passion if not a profession.
“Through The Nutcracker I’ve watched students develop, not just as dancers, but as people,” states HBT founder and artistic director Charlys Ing.
For Ing and the rest of the cast, Nutcracker is much more than an annual dance production: It’s a celebration.
“It’s not work, not like a job,” insists dancer Andrew Sakaguchi, appearing in his 15th production this year. “It’s more like an annual Christmas party.”
A scene from HBT’s 2004 ‘Nutcracker’
Sakaguchi should know. Despite a demanding Broadway career, he - and several other of Ing’s former students - make the effort to return each Christmas to reconnect in Nutcracker.“It’s like family,” Sakaguchi states simply.
Which is Ing’s sentiment exactly - and the driving force behind her continuing commitment to the dance company. She learned some years ago - after tearful farewells from graduates - that the relationship students have with her and dance is unique.
“For me, it’s about the children I work with,” explains Ing, director of Punahou Dance School, where she is also senior ballet instructor. “Even if I see them just once a year in The Nutcracker, and then they keep returning, I’ve known them for 13 years of their lives.”
After eight years in New York and national tours in The King and I and La
Cage aux Folles, Sakaguchi is back home in Hawaii and a teacher himself, working with students at Mid-Pacific Institute, Punahou Dance School and Queen Emma Ballet.
“I started with HBT when I was 17,” recalls Sakaguchi, who’s appeared locally at Manoa Valley and Diamond Head theaters. “Charlys gave me my first teaching job at 19 at
Punahou. She had enough faith in me to give me a job. She’s been a real mentor.”
Like Sakaguchi, New York-based dancer and teacher Greg Zane joined the company as a youngster and, since 1984, has appeared in 15 or so (he’s lost count) Nutcrackers.
“Charlys has been very good to me throughout my career,” explains Zane, who appeared in The King and I on Broadway and toured nationally with the production. He has also performed with Radio City Music Hall, Alberta Ballet and the Los Angeles Chamber Ballet.
“I’ve made so many great friends,” adds Zane, who directs a Diamond Head Theatre production each year along with John Rampage, “whom I met here doing Nutcracker.
“Charlys is one of the first people who gave me an opportunity,” Zane stresses, “and I’ve learned so much - about dancing, acting, designing - through the company.”
Another alumna, Christine Yasunaga, began studying with Ing at age 12 and has danced in six HBT productions of The Nutcracker.
Yasunaga, who earned a degree in dance from UCLA, has performed on Broadway in the original cast of The Lion King and in The King and I. She’s also danced at Radio City Music Hall and with entertainers Ricky Martin and Bernadette Peters.
“Charlys gave me the base training I needed to be able to go and adapt to different styles of dance,” says Yasunaga, who has returned to Hawaii to raise her daughter. She’s also in the process of creating and producing a dance competition show - in the spirit of the Fox hit So You Think You Can Dance - for Hawaii TV.
With 24 Nutcrackers under her belt and a background on Broadway, Ing’s own daughter, Kristin, seems unequivocally qualified to play the lead role of Clara.
“When I grew up, Christmas was The Nutcracker,” says Kristin, who describes her childhood years with HBT as “a magical experience ... Ballets always had these rich characters with gorgeous costumes and beautiful music.”
Kristin, a graduate of Yale and Harvard universities, also appeared in The King and I on Broadway with Zane. She now teaches dance at Punahou and three other studios in town.
“Of course, I’m thrilled she’s home and
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