Isabel and Francisca are sharing several roles in “The Nutcracker” including the Snowflakes and Flowers Dance. PHOTO BY CHRIS MORTENSeN

Dancing siblings help bring back holiday classic

By Bridgette M. Redman

The dancers of Westside Ballet were eager to get back on Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage this year and perform the perennial favorite “The Nutcracker” for the large audiences that they missed last year.
The show opened last weekend and will continue for three shows this coming Saturday and Sunday. It is a performance that will welcome back a former dancer in the principal role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and feature a set of twins and two members of a set of triplets in several other roles.

Daniella Zhou, a high school senior, returned from Miami to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Zhou joined Westside Ballet when she was 11 and has danced with them for the past nine years — until this past August when she was offered a place with the Pre-Professional Division at Miami City Ballet for their 2021-2022 season.

“(Daniella) ascended through the levels by her natural talent, combined with a strong work ethic, strength and sublime artistry,” said Martine Harley, Westside Ballet’s artistic director. “She brings incredible variety and distinctive traits to whatever she dances. Her composure, grace, dedication and humility –– both on and off stage –– are quite rare. We are absolutely elated to have Daniella make her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy in our 2021 return-to-the-stage “Nutcracker” production, which promises to highlight Daniella’s gorgeous style.”

The former Santa Monica resident is thrilled to be returning to dance in “The Nutcracker.”

“I’m honestly just excited to go back and see the teachers I’ve known for years and the people who helped me get where I am,” Zhou said. “I haven’t seen The Broad Stage for a while. We missed a whole year and that is such a special place to me. I’m so excited to be back in the theater and perform for a big audience again.”

Sisters dance in featured roles

It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the other dancers in the troupe — including a set of twins and two of a set of triplets dancing in this year’s “Nutcracker.” Jasmine and Kalea Harrison, juniors at Notre Dame Academy High School, and Francisca and Isabella Bugacov, freshmen at New West Charter High School, all expressed how eager they were to be back on The Broad Stage.

Jasmine and Kalea, 17, who are triplets along with their brother, Derek, will be sharing the role of the Snow Queen and Dew Drop. Jasmine will also dance the part of Lead Mirliton and Kalea will perform in the Arabian Dance. Francisca and Isabel, 14, share the role of Lead Chinese, Side Spanish, Side Mirliton, and the Snowflakes and Flowers Dance.

“This is our ninth time — we love ‘The Nutcracker,’” Jasmine said. “It’s one of the reasons we like ballet so much. Performing it is such a nice feeling, especially at The Broad Stage. The Broad Stage is such a fun place. With the stage lights and costumes, it’s all just very exciting and a change from our day-to-day ballet classes.”

Francisca said this is their fourth year doing the Nutcracker — counting the slimmed down version done last year during the height of the pandemic.

“It is so exciting to showcase the months of work we’ve done in the studio,” Francisca said. “With the costumes, lights and audience, it’s very fulfilling.”

Jasmine said that while last year was fun, she is excited to have a bigger audience once again, to return to the dressing room and be back on the stage that they love. Kalea echoed the sentiment, saying that last year they had to perform for a very small audience — just parents and maybe a few siblings. She’s excited now to perform for a large audience.

“It makes you feel like a real dancer,” Francisca said. “The studio is an at-home feeling, whereas being on The Broad Stage makes you feel like a professional with the stage makeup and lights and marks on stage. It is much more serious.”

Isabel pointed out that last year they weren’t allowed to do the big group or core dances because of the need to be socially distant. This year, they are once again doing a full production, which means the large numbers like Snow and Flowers.

“I’ve learned more,” Isabel said. “I’ve learned how to be a reference space, how to stay in formation better. When you’re looking for the marks on stage, it comes with its challenges, but I’m excited to be back on the stage.”

Juniors perform principal roles

Jasmine and Kalea are two of the top dancers in the pre-professional company.

“Kalea and Jasmine are remarkably talented sisters whose dedication and love of their craft is evident in every class, rehearsal and performance they do,” Harley said. “We’re very excited to see them flourishing despite the restrictions of the past year.”

The sisters both reflected on what the past couple years have been like since the cancellation of the spring dance show in 2020.

“As it seems the pandemic is finally lifting, I’m so grateful to be returning to the stage,” Kalea said. “There is nothing quite like the magic of performing for a big audience while allowing yourself to become transformed by the music. Dancing in Westside Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ for the past eight years has granted me valuable performance exposure, which has helped me grow in artistry and technique.”

“The last two years have been such an interesting experience in terms of navigating the pandemic,” Jasmine said. “We’ve had to take increased safety measures, which means we have to wear masks while dancing. But it’s actually been really fun – because we got to experience rehearsing many beautiful roles – just for the joy of it, and not actually for an audience. That was an interesting experience for all of us dancers, after many years of performing to a live audience because it reinforced the mindset of giving 200 percent effort in any circumstance, whether there was a live audience or not.”

The Westside Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is Southern California’s longest-running production, an interpretation that is a close rendition of George Balanchine’s classical “Nutcracker” ballet. It was brought to Los Angeles in 1973 by Westside’s co-founder Yvonne Mounsey.

“Words cannot describe how thrilled we are to finally return to The Broad Stage, which has been our home stage since 2013,” Harley said. “There is truly nothing like sharing the exquisite artistry of our production and talent of our dancers with the greater Santa Monica community. Westside’s ‘Nutcracker’ has withstood the test of time, remaining a coveted tradition for our community and dancers for nearly five decades.”

Sisters support and help each other

Kalea, Jasmine, Isabel and Francisca all express how much they like dancing with someone who literally shares their DNA, a dance partner that they know better than anyone else.

“I love dancing with my sister,” Kalea said. “We have similar musicality and dance styles. We build off each other.”

“I feel like I’m dancing better when I dance with Kalea,” Jasmine added. “I like to think we’re more in sync because we are twins. We feed off each other’s energy and our dancing styles. I feel like it makes us better dancers when we dance together.”

“I like dancing with Fran,” Isabel said. “Like when we’re both Side Mirliton. It is cool because we understand each other’s rhythm. We’re able to be more in sync. At home we watch each other dance and give each other corrections and help each other stretch. It’s nice to have someone at home who understands ballet.”

“We have a part where we are two sides in a trio,” Francisca said. “So when we do the mannerisms with each other, it looks mirrored. It’s a cooler effect.”

The younger twins both said that they help each other out at home and enjoy having someone to talk to about dancing and the specific issues that they struggle with.

“Living with Isabel, I can be very open if something didn’t work out in rehearsal or if something just felt weird,” Francisca said. “I can really talk to Isabel. We both play instruments with the same teacher, so we share a musicality.”

“Practicing and dancing with Fran can get a little stressful,” Isabel said. “Being twins, there is that sense of comparison that is a little nerve-wracking, but we do feel very comfortable with each other.”

The comparison is something that Jasmine and Kalea talk about as well, though they feel it is more in their heads than anything that others do to them. Both said the teachers don’t refer to them as “the twins,” but as Jasmine and Kalea.

“I feel that sense of comparison in my head,” Jasmine said. “But over the years, it’s gotten better because we have developed different styles of dancing and the teachers correct us as individuals. So even though I have that internal comparison, it is nice to be somewhere where I can have a different dancing experience.”

“Even though we have similar musicality and dance style, we have, over time, developed as individual dancers,” Kalea added. “I like that the teachers correct us as individuals. I do feel like there is some internal comparison, but I don’t feel like I get that from the teachers.”

Nutcracker carries on decades of tradition

“The Nutcracker” opens with a classic Victorian-style party scene and travels to the Kingdom of Sweets replete with dances of fanciful flowers and splendid fairy queens. The Westside Ballet production includes several elements that have become traditions — a tree that grows, a firing cannon and falling snow. Young children are brought in to dance the party children, mice and soldiers.

This year’s production showcases several male cast members. Three Santa Monica residents — Jesse Dean, Sawyer Jordan and Dylan Weinstein — perform the newly choreographed Russian dance that showcase their Olympic-level athleticism with high jumps and perfected ballet form.

“The Russian dance has always been an audience favorite,” Harley said. “We are so proud of our advanced young male cast members, who train tirelessly — over 25-plus hours a week — and have mastered the exuberant Russian dance to a level usually reserved for one professional guest soloist.”

The production also brings in several guest dancers including Chasen Greenwood as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier. Greenwood trained on a full scholarship with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Houston Ballet and Ballet Austin.

Westside Ballet also welcomes back resident guest artists Evan Swenson, Mark Anthony Lopez and Sven Toorvad. All dancers and audience members above age 12 must show vaccination certificates. Those below the age of 12 or with medical exceptions must show a negative PCR test. Masks will be required for all audience members and unvaccinated dancers.

What: The Nutcracker
Who: Westside Ballet
Where: The Broad Stage at
the Santa Monica College
Performing Arts Center,
1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 4; 1 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 5
Tickets: $50