As Ballet San Antonio completes its 30th season of “The Nutcracker,” the company looks back at the past by performing the choreography of Mayra Worthen, while looking forward to the future with newly minted artistic director, Willy Shives. The BSA will offer five more performances of the perennial holiday favorite at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, from Dec. 10 – 13. The first performance is Thursday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale here.
Worthen founded the BSA with Melissa Hale Coyle in 1985 and served as Artistic Director until she was succeeded by Gabriel Zertuche in 2012. Zertuche’s unexpected departure in August 2015 left the company without an artistic director, just as they were headed into early rehearsals for Ben Stevenson’s “Swan Lake.”
I spoke with Worthen before Saturday evening’s Nutcracker performance. A pleasant woman with a disarming sense of humor, she reflected upon the circumstances of her exit from BSA in 2012.
“It’s funny, I always thought I would retire at 30 years. Three years ago, I was not ready to retire, now, I am. I am ready to step away from ballet and enjoy different things in my life, like traveling,” She laughed. “I am learning to say no. I am ready.”
Worthen did say yes when BSA Board of Directors asked her to return to the company to set “The Nutcracker” for the 2015 season. Company and Outreach Manager Danielle Campbell Steans and Ballet Mistress Amy Fote did much of the heavy lifting, actually setting the choreography on the company with the customary extensive rehearsals.
“I trusted Danielle to set the work. I gave it to her, it is her time,” Worthen said. “Of course, I updated the choreography to reflect the skill of the dancers, made a tweak here and there. It is hard work, but I feel good about passing the choreography on to a new generation.”
Willy Shives was also in attendance during the Saturday performance, in support of his new company. Shives and his wife of 34 years, Evie Peña-Shives, are still commuting between San Antonio and their current home in Chicago. Shives joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1999 at the invitation of Founder and Artistic Director Gerald Arpino. Evie – also a ballet dancer – is an elementary-level teacher with the prestigious Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago. Their daughters have followed in their parent’s footsteps and pursuing training in the performing arts.
Shives was named “Chicagoan of the Year” by the Chicago Tribune and recognized for his outstanding artistry by the Chicago Dance and Music Alliance in 2003. He was named one of “Chicago Theatre’s 50 Leading Characters” in 2004 and honored by his home state of Texas with the Legacy Award in 2005.
Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times Senior Dance Critic, once wrote that Shives “is an astounding dancer who immerses himself completely into every role…”
A native of the Rio Grande Valley, growing up in Edinburg, Texas, his mentor was Nikita Talin, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In his youth, he made many trips to San Antonio as he and Evie attended classes and performances at the San Antonio Ballet under the leadership of Vladimir Marek. Shives was awarded a Ford Foundation Scholarship at the age of nine, allowing him to study with George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet. He also studied at the Harkness Ballet School in New York City on a full-ride scholarship.
A professional performer since 1981, he retired from the stage at the age of 47, while at the top of his game.
“I was still doing ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ ‘Giselle,’ ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘Petrouchka,'” said Shives. “That’s what I retired with – all opening nights.”
Quite remarkable, considering that most dancers retire from performance in their early to mid-thirties. In addition to lead dance roles, he was also very involved with the Joffrey’s Community Outreach Program. He was happily ensconced and engaged with his community for 16 years. Despite this, when BSA did make the offer, it was clear that this was the right move professionally and for his family.
“After all these years, we needed to get back home to Texas,” Shives said. It has all happened very quickly.
Shives has performed leading roles in some of the world’s most renowned theaters. His professional engagements include the Joffrey Ballet, Eglevsky Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Milwaukee Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Tulsa Ballet Theatre and Ballet Austin. His repertoire includes a vast list of 19th-century classics and works by contemporary masters that include everyone, from Gerald Arpino to Antony Tudor. His performances in “Petrouchka” and “L’Après-Midi d’un Fauné” – roles originated by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – have been met with critical acclaim.
The BSA Board of Directors have managed quite a hiring coup after conducting a brief national search to fill this position.
“His notably wide breadth of abilities, combined with his capacity for building community through ballet will empower our company to launch an amazing new chapter in Ballet San Antonio’s legacy,” said Board Chair Christine Varela Mayer. Mr. Shives skills are in demand, as he oversees numerous artistic projects in the U.S and abroad. He is among an esteemed group of artist repetiteurs for the Antony Tudor Trust, as well as for The Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey Foundation.
When the curtain rises on the company working through their barre and warm-up prior to performance, it is clear that Shives is quite enchanted with the dancers he is charged with leading into the next phase of their professional lives. He actually tears up a bit as he watches them work, as if it is all too good to be true.
Shives actually first learned of the opening for an artistic director at BSA from his brother-in-law. He was traveling through the area when he heard the news and decided to offer his services to teach class or whatever he could do to help out.
“It is when I came in that Monday and worked with the dancers for two weeks that I fell in love with them,” Shives said. “They are so close and supportive of each other. They did a ‘Swan Lake’ with no artistic director; they are doing this ‘Nutcracker’ with no artistic director; they did this for Amy and Danielle. The dancers pulled together because they want it. They made it happen. They are beautiful and could be dancing anywhere, that’s how talented they are.”
The dancers are tenacious as well. They have dealt with turmoil that might have destroyed a lesser company. Their professionalism and single-minded determination reflects well on the strength they have gained over the past few years as they worked to fulfill their destiny as the resident ballet company of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts under the guidance of Zertuche and former Executive Director Courtney Mauro Barker.
Shives believes that San Antonio deserves a world-class company but acknowledges that his greatest challenge is getting the audience into the theater.
“They are not really sure that there is a professional company here,” Shives said. “They (the audience) don’t have that focus yet. They need to know that we have this beautiful company that is here for them. ”
Shives intends to continue building visibility in the community on the back of established relationships like Boys & Girls Club, and reach out further to public schools, the private sector and academia.
“We just need to get out there,” he said. “It is important for us all to grow as human beings and the arts put us in a place to be able to do that. A place of confidence and self-worth.”
With Shives at the helm, BSA stands poised to move forward into previously unnavigated territory with a new catalogue of repertoire and style available to them as never before. He brings gravitas and professionalism to the position, as well as an infectious enthusiasm for his subject and a genuine affection for those he would lead.
“The Nutcracker” in Brief Review
In short, the performance of the ballet was winning. On the evening we attended it was not “first cast,” however, the production kept the audience engaged until the final curtain. Frankly, with the current company roster, there is little fluctuation in quality of performance from cast to cast. The discipline of the dancers and those who have worked with them over the past several months has certainly paid off in this respect.
The live performance of the beloved Tchaikovsky score by the San Antonio Symphony under the baton of Associate Conductor of Akiko Fujimoto was spirited and rang through the hall with the sparkling energy that we expect of this piece.
Worthen’s choreography illustrated a very traditional version of the ballet, acquitting herself beautifully. The first act’s party scene balanced slapstick antics with precise technique, regaling the audience with the Christmastime fairy tale that many have come to love. The second act whirled past at a pace that kept all on the edge of their seats, each variation executed with aplomb and magic.
The children’s cast covering the roles of party guests, mice, toy soldiers, angels and Mother Ginger’s tumbling tykes were expertly dovetailed into the professional company, and all were a perfect addition to the overarching themes of fantasy, magic and the yearnings of a young girl on the verge of growing up. The audience was transported into a confectionery world of light and laughter, and made the better for it.
“On many levels in these ballet fairy tales, good does conquer evil,” said Joffery Artistic Director Ashley Wheater of the story ballet format. “Love conquers all. These are messages that we still want to believe in today.”
Hear, hear, I say. Especially at Christmastime. Happy holidays, y’all.
Ticket prices start at $29, and can be purchased online at www.tobincenter.org, in person at the Tobin Center box office, 100 Auditorium Circle, or via phone at 210-223-8624. Season packages for Ballet San Antonio are available and include tickets to “The Nutcracker,” “Peter Pan,” and “Ballet Alive!” The Nutcracker Market Boutique will take place before and after each performance, a first for BSA patrons this season.
*Top image: Crystal Serrano and Ian Morris in the Snow pas de deux. Photo by Alexander Devora.