Columbus Ballet Director To Debut New Nutcracker Production
by Laura Erickson, Muscogee Moms/LaGrange Moms
The Columbus Ballet returns to the stage this December with the magic and wonder of the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker. But when the curtain rises at the Rivercenter for Performing Arts, audiences will delight in an all-new production choreographed by new artistic director, Jenifer Sarver.
Sarver trained in schools all over the country, including New Orleans, Houston, Boston, and Washington. She earned her BA in Dance Pedagogy from Butler University and her MFA in Studio Based Research from the University of Utah Department of Ballet. Her professional performance career took her around the world to locales like China, Poland, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as American ballet companies. She has danced some of the most famous roles in ballet, including Clara, Sugarplum, Snow Queens, Giselle, Firebird, and Swan Lake, to name a few. Beyond the stage, her career includes extensive choreography experience as well as writing for international dance publications.
Sarver was recently named the Columbus Ballet Artistic and Executive Director and the Columbus State University Youth Dance Conservatory Director. Muscogee Moms recently spoke with Ms. Sarver about her fascinating career in the world of dance and her transition to teaching and choreography
MMoms: When did you begin dance training, and what led you to pursue professional dance?
JS: I began dance training at the Carter School of Dance in Severna Park, Maryland, at a fairly late age…in the third grade. I originally wanted to be a gymnast. My aunt had been (and was on the national team) but had been injured, so my parents steered me away from that. I actually fell in love with a VHS copy of The Nutcracker starring Gelsey Kirkland. It was my desire to dance as she did (and, more specifically, to be Clara) that led me to pursue dance seriously. I had also hoped to be a professional violinist, but it became clear fairly soon that my ballet abilities far outstripped my abilities with the violin!
MMoms: Tell us about training to become a professional dancer…the education, skills, discipline, typical days, auditions, etc.
JS: It’s very difficult. It’s changed a lot since I was training. Now dancers are allowed to specialize earlier, homeschool and train more hours a day. I would have given anything to have been able to do that. but I went to regular school, and then danced from around 4:30 until late at night. I always struggled with strength and stamina and it was very hard and frustrating to conserve energy throughout the day. It’s something I try to be careful of for my girls now, especially those that are not homeschooled.
Conservatory is tough. It’s ballet all day, but also contemporary dance, pas de deux, pointe, variations, character. It’s terribly competitive because everyone wants the same thing – to obtain the best roles in the performances, and ultimately, to get a full-time job dancing. Auditioning has changed too. I was very lucky and was hired by my company in Poland through a video. I didn’t realize I had been hired as a soloist until I signed my contract…I was in shock! Auditions can be terribly brutal – most dancers try to get company class auditions but that has become very hard, for obvious reasons, and so many must do “open calls”- which can have hundreds of dancers in a room competing for one or two spots. You have to be very tough mentally and simply just keep working. The blinders have to stay on. I had a wonderful career, but was rejected far more times than I was hired!
MMoms: Where and when did you first join a professional company?
JS: My first professional job was with the San Diego Ballet, and I was hired directly out of Butler University, by video. I was very relieved because I had been injured senior year and hadn’t been able to audition at full strength. I loved the city and made some of my closest friends that year (who are still my closest friends to this day). But small American companies often do not pay a living wage and this was terribly important to me – I just didn’t have the stamina needed to work another job to support my dancing. So, I went to Europe.
MMoms: What are some of your most memorable roles or experiences while dancing professionally? Do you have a favorite?
JS: My favorite roles were Clara in The Nutcracker (which is a principal role in Eastern Europe, who dances the pas de deuxes as well…there is no Sugarplum Fairy). I danced it first in Poland, at the Teatr Wielki of Lodz. I was originally the third cast girl, but I was given a chance to do a rehearsal of it… and I danced that rehearsal as though it was the last thing I was ever going to do in my life. I knew every step and acted every moment as though it was real, which most dancers don’t do in the studio… and after that, the role was mine!
There is a wonderful, blissful moment before the grand pas de deux in the second act. The Waltz of the Flowers finishes, and you’ve already had your nervous pacing. Then everything, everything just gets quiet. So quiet. The stage is yours, and suddenly you hear that simple, aching, descending arpeggio that begins the grand adagio….and its magic. I danced that role more times than I can count, and it was pure magic every time. Even when it didn’t go well. That music will always be there for you, and it has become a part of my soul, forever.
My other favorite role was Giselle, perhaps the most perfect ballet ever created. It’s the Hamlet of ballet. Again, I was originally not even the first cast, but the understudy. But we had a very big studio, and so I was able to dance it full out in the back without annoying the first and second casts; and danced it well enough that the director decided I should also be given performances in the role. Always, always, always work hard as an understudy, because you never know!
Perhaps my craziest experience though was dancing Sugarplum Fairy as a principal guest with Scotland’s Ballet West…we were on a tour through China for several months, but our departure was delayed because of the volcanic explosion in Iceland! So instead of flying from Glasgow, two weeks later, we took a 10-hour coach ride to Birmingham in England, then flew to Dubai…then flew to Hong Kong….now, I don’t sleep on flights! We landed in Hong Kong, got on a bus, and I remember seeing the famous skyline. Then we had to clear customs into mainland China, which took several hours, and then we got on a bus for another hour to a hotel. We slept for about four hours before being up to catch a flight to Shenzhen, arriving in early afternoon….and that night, I did my first Chinese Sugarplum. I have no idea how it went but everyone seemed pleased! That trip was where I learned to sleep for 14 hours at a time. We had no internet at the time, and so I just brought along Willkie Collins and John Irving.
MMoms: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
JS: When something becomes possible for a student that wasn’t before. It’s a wonderful moment when a student feels he/she cannot achieve something, but works at it, takes your help and guidance, and then after a time, accomplishes it. The joy of seeing a young dancer do her first triple pirouette after working to get it for weeks: priceless. I love seeing my students succeed, and seeing that pride and joy when they realize they are capable of more than they thought. That pride and confidence translate into other aspects of life, as well.
Teaching is hard work- you must simultaneously have prepared a class that advances the students’ technical and artistic abilities, builds on their previous skills, introduces all the necessary skills and steps to ballet, and also provides both a challenge and opportunity to succeed for a very wide group of student ability! Each student is different, too. Some are shy, quiet and respond to quiet corrections. Others enjoy and will succeed if put “on the spot”.
You also have to be careful with humor. I’m not particularly funny – part of that is that I have an incredible degree of personal respect for anyone who is trying to master a skill. It is irrelevant if that person is five years old or 65 years old, or how able they are. If they are working, trying and wanting to understand, they deserve my absolute best in terms of respect and patience. You must take infinite care when working with living beings.
MMoms: What advice do you give to younger dancers who are considering a professional career in dance?
JS: If you are seeking a professional ballet career, by the age of 12, you really need to be in class every day. There is a little more leeway if you are hoping for Broadway or commercial dance. There is a little more leeway if you are hoping for a career in modern dance, as much modern dance training happens in college. But be aware that professional modern dancers often work several jobs to support their artistic work, which can be difficult if one has gone to college for dance, and then has student loans.
You cannot hope for a professional career in ballet and take three ballet classes a week while doing other a host of other activities. It’s a wonderful thing to be well-rounded, but it’s not terribly compatible with true achievement in classical ballet. Ballet can be enjoyed perfectly well at a recreational level, but it’s essential to know that you are making a choice. It’s very sad when you get an 18-year-old hoping for a professional career but not having had the training to back them up. There is always time, later on, to be well-rounded. I took up figure skating at the age of 35! It’s wonderful to expose kids to many things…but if a child likes ballet, likes dance, and expresses a desire for a career in this field, that is where the focus has to be. If you are spread too thin, as so many young dancers these days are, you are limiting your chances for success in one particular field.
What to Know if You Want to Go:
The Columbus Ballet will present The Nutcracker on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, Dec. 9, 2019, at 2:30 pm. The magical holiday performance includes an all-star cast of 140+ dancers and performers, the professional orchestra under the direction of Maestro Paul Hostetter, and the 40-voice Bella Voce ensemble of the Voices of the Valley.
Location: Rivercenter For Performing Arts, 900 Broadway, Columbus, GA 31901
Tickets: Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
Box Office Hours: The RiverCenter box office is open Monday-Friday, 10AM-5:30 PM and an hour prior to performances. The Box Office can also be reached during business hours at 706-256-3612 and by email at [email protected].