The hierarchy of traditional ballet divides dancers into principals – the stars of the show – and corps de ballet dancers, the ones who get the supportive roles.
That’s not true of a small company like Eugene Ballet, which mixes corps dancers – which it calls “company dancers” – into top roles for many of its productions.
Two young company members who will be performing in the ballet’s new Snow Queen when it opens here in April are Sara Stockwell and Isaac Jones, both dedicated dancers at the beginning of promising careers.
“What’s so great about Eugene Ballet is that being a small company, the company dancers can be highlighted in principal roles,” Isaac says. “Though there are some rankings, company dancers still do principal and soloists roles, and sometimes principals will be a part of corp work. (Artistic director) Toni (Pimble) really gives all her dancers opportunities to be in the spotlight, and that has really been a blessing. To experience corps work in some shows and soloist/principal roles in others has given me a lot of room to grow.”
With nearly a quarter million dollars in funding from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment, the Snow Queen will be an all-new production, with a new score, created by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, new costumes, by Jonna Hayden, and new set, by Nadya Geras-Carson.
Both Midwesterners, Sara and Isaac each began their ballet training at what the dance world derisively calls “Dolly Dinkle” schools, which, to put it most charitably, means a small school that is more suited to recreational dancers than to aspiring professionals. Both young dancers are smart and ambitious, and both convinced their supportive parents that serious ballet study was more important, at least at this point in their lives, than college.
And both, unusually, managed to land jobs in Eugene without an in-person audition.
I met Sara and Isaac for coffee one morning last week to learn about their careers, their families and what they hope to do in “Snow Queen.” The pair of them were just back from a performance of EBC’s annual “Nutcracker” in Corvallis, and were headed out on the road again a few days later for 30 more performances around the West of the perennial holiday favorite.
A native of Rochester, Minnesota, Sara, 23, is beginning her sixth season with the ballet. The daughter of a computer programmer and a mother who home-schooled two children, Sara – at least by family lore – fell in love with ballet at the age of two when she happened to see “Hans Christian Andersen,” the 1952 Danny Kaye movie, on television. She announced right then she wanted to be a ballerina.
“I watched the movie again recently,” Sara said. “When I was two I must have been enamored by the costumes and sets; the spectacle of it all was enchanting and I wanted to be at the center of it!”
Sara begged her parents for ballet lessons until they finally enrolled her in a class that was half ballet and half tumbling.
When she was 10 she was in her first “Nutcracker,” in the starring role of Clara. An experienced male dancer brought into the show saw her technique and suggested to Sara that she needed a better ballet school.
Two years later she auditioned for a professional intensive program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Manitoba – and was accepted – and then put the school off for a year because she thought, at 12, she was too young. At that point her parents asked which she wanted to do – college or ballet?
“I was like, ‘This!’” she said. They agreed to help her out with ballet.
The Royal Winnipeg program marked a turning point for her with its military-style precision and discipline. “It was so very different,” she said. “That was the first time I really understood what ballet really is.”
It was also sometimes over-the-top. “After four years it was so competitive and so intense I saw a lot of burnout.”
Sara told her mom she needed a change, left the ballet program in Winnipeg, and, at the age of 17, headed for New York City, where she found a new teacher, and endured round after round of cattle-call auditions. Along the way she sent an audition tape to Eugene Ballet, having heard of the company because a several alums of the Royal Winnipeg were working here.
She was offered a job here based on the tape and on recommendations from instructors.
“It was harder than I thought it would be,” she said of her first impression of the Eugene company. “I thought, because I had gone to schools that were so intense, there was no way it could be more intense. But it was: The sheer number of shows and the amount of dancing!”
“In hindsight,”she said, “I don’t think I would’ve burned out had I stayed, but I’m grateful to have experienced life in New York City and happy with where I am now.”
She started out dancing in Romeo and Juliet that season; her roles here have included Summer Fairy in Cinderella and Petit Cygnets in Swan Lake. She has also danced in Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Sarah Ebert’s Arráncate and Toni Pimble’s “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” from Zoot Suit Riot. Last season she was featured the White Cat and Fairy of Tenderness in The Sleeping Beauty.
A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Isaac, 21, is the son of a quality director and a medical coder. “They put me in dance when I was six because they had put me in Little League, and I hated it,” he says.
That early support from his parents has been unwavering, he said, despite many possible traps. “Being a dancer, being gay – that was all very relaxed,” Isaac says. “My parents were like, ‘This is what you want to do. You can go to college when you’re older.’ They were both supportive of anything I wanted to do. They try to come to as many of my shows here as they can.”
Like Sara, he started at a local ballet school that wasn’t exactly top rated. He was eventually hired at Sarasota Ballet in Florida and worked a season there.
A former Eugene Ballet dancer working in Sarasota suggested he send an audition video to Eugene. Isaac did, and soon the friend pulled him aside and said, “They’re interested.” To his considerable surprise, a couple hours later Pimble emailed Isaac a contract to sign – again, based on the tape and on recommendations.
He showed up for work here September 20, 2013. “My first show was Peter Pan. I was a pirate, and a fish.”
The ballet company in Sarasota was a bit old school, Isaac says, with sometimes impossible expectations of its dancers. So when he came to Eugene he was on edge.
“I remember walking in the first day, terrified. What was this going to be like? And right away, all the dancers walked up and introduced themselves. They allow you to grow here in healthy ways. This is my fourth season, and I’m still happy!”
He played the evil Cousin Kevin in the ballet’s production of Pimble’s Tommy the Ballet, based on the Who’s rock opera, in 2015. “That was the most fun I’ve had in a show,” he says.
Other roles he’s danced here include Solo Boy in Septime Webre’s Fluctuating Hemlines and Herr Drosselmeyer and Trepak in The Nutcracker. Last season he danced Puss in Boots in The Sleeping Beauty and Tom Buchanan in Pimble’s The Great Gatsby. He was also featured in Amy Seiwert’s White Noise.
When Isaac first heard of plans for the new Snow Queen production, he feared the worst. “Our first thought was, oh my god, we’re doing ‘Frozen,’ the ballet.”
But word trickled down that the new production would be nothing like the Disney version, and even the most skeptical dancers were won over.
Meanwhile, both Isaac and Sara are still waiting to find out exactly what their roles will be in the new Snow Queen. Based on advance publicity they have an idea what their roles will be, but can’t be certain.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I know what I’m going to be doing in April next season (2018),” he says. “But I still don’t know yet what I’m doing in April of this season!”
This is the fifth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch; and Part Four, on costumer Jonna Hayden.
“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.