Arts & Culture

From one ‘Nutcracker’ to another

Dancers from the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo rehearse the Snow Scene from Act 1 of the Nutcracker.
Dancers from the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo rehearse the Snow Scene from Act 1 of the Nutcracker.

This winter, one young San Luis Obispo dancer will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Isabel Deyo will appear as Clara in Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo’s production of “The Nutcracker” — the same role her mom danced more than three decades ago. The ballet runs Dec. 12 and 13 at the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center.

“When you do ballet when you’re a little girl, you dream about doing Clara,” choreographer Lisa Deyo said. “It’s very exciting.”

According to Civic Ballet artistic director Drew Silvaggio, the role of Clara — the fearless young protagonist of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet — carries special significance for female dancers.

“It’s their breakout role, their introduction to the community as a dancer,” he said.

Amber Lum, who will double as Clara, described the role as “a really important part.”

“I’ve always wanted to be Clara,” the 14-year-old San Luis Obispo resident said. “It’s really special to be able to be chosen for (this role).”

A longstanding tradition

Founded by Lori Silvaggio, Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo staged its first production of “The Nutcracker” in 1977.

At age 13, Lisa Deyo was too young to audition for the ballet company. Instead, she tried out for the role of Clara, a young girl whose toy nutcracker magically transforms into a Prince.

“At that time, Lisa was just stunning in her technique,” said Silvaggio, who also founded Academy of Dance in San Luis Obispo. “When she went on that stage, she had a lot to do with the initial kickoff (of the ballet company) as a valuable force.”

Over the years, “The Nutcracker” has become a holiday tradition for Lisa Deyo and her family.

Deyo’s mother, Judy Freeman, crafted some of the first costumes for Civic Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” She’s also played the role of the maid for 18 years.

“They’re still using costumes that my mom designed years and years ago,” said Lisa Deyo, who counts the Clara costume her mother made among her prize possessions. Her siblings, Julie Overy and San Luis Obispo orthodontist John Freeman, performed in “The Nutcracker” for years.

And her husband, Jacques Deyo, helps out behind the scenes.

Lisa Deyo’s daughter first appeared in a Civic Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” in 1999 as a marionette doll. She and cousin Stephanie Freeman have danced in every “Nutcracker” since 2003.

According to Silvaggio, Isabel Deyo displays just as much natural ability and poise as her mother, who danced professionally with Dennis Wayne’s Dancers in New York City and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

“Man, if you didn’t ever believe in genetics, you believe in it now,” said Silvaggio. “This little girl is talented in the same way. There are times when I’m peeking in on rehearsal and I get a combination of déjà vu and magic.”

An Academy of Dance student, Isabel Deyo spent a year in Barcelona studying under Spanish ballet artist Ion Beitia. She’s also participated in summer programs with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and Walnut Hill Ballet in Boston.

Lum took part in an Academy of Dance performance tour of China.

“They are both phenomenally talented young ladies,” Silvaggio said, who’s taught both teenagers since they were children. “Our community should be really proud. These young people work as if they were professionals in the biggest city of the world.”

Intricate production

Civic Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” requires about 115 cast and crew members, including a 30-member company, 60-plus support cast members and guest dancers. They spend months in rehearsal, perfecting every twist, twirl and pas de deux.

This year’s cast features Academy of Dance instructor Michelle Epperheimer as Sugar Plum Fairy and professional dancer Greg Sample as Cavalier. A featured dancer with Hubbard Street Chicago from 1997 to 2002, he served as lead dancer in Celine Dion’s long-running Las Vegas show.

“We’re just so happy to have him,” Drew Silvaggio said of Sample. “He’s really going to bring a new level to ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”

Still, the Silvaggios said, it’s the role of Clara that’s truly essential to “The Nutcracker.”

“Her experience is our experience in the audience,” said Lori Silvaggio, “Everything that’s happening is happening to her.”

She sees Tchaikovsky’s ballet as a female empowerment tale in which a proper Victorian girl becomes a daring heroine who battles rats and journeys to exotic lands.

“Her reactions and her bravery and her kindness and her good behavior, all that combines to make us see a human spirit in perfect form,” Silvaggio said.

Clara is so important, in fact, that Civic Ballet routinely casts two girls ages 9 to 15 in the role. When one dancer is onstage as Clara, the other dancer plays her friend in the first-act party scene.

“There are thousands of steps these young ladies know,” Lori Silvaggio said. “You can’t stand somebody up onstage and say, ‘Here. do it.’ ”

According to the Academy of Dance founder, having a skilled, dedicated dancer in the role is the difference between a good “Nutcracker” and an extraordinary one.

“If we have a Clara out there who is rigidly just going through the motions, the story is still fun,” she said. “But if we have a Clara out there who is really living her art and expressing it, that’s what makes (‘The Nutcracker’) a valuable bit of art.”