One Local Young Lady Lights Up OBT’s “The Nutcracker”
Eleven-year-old Zaida Johnson knows all about pressure and poise. Last September, Zaida (pronounced “Zay-da”) gathered with her School of Oregon Ballet Theatre classmates to audition for the plum parts in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” to be performed December 13–27 at Portland’s Keller Auditorium.
“I normally don’t get nervous,” Johnson said. “But this time it was more stressful, because Kevin Irving, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, was sitting in on the auditions. It’s a little bit different when he’s the room.”
“He’s the big cheese,” Anthony Jones, school director, said with a nod.
With eight years of ballet training under her belt, Johnson steeled herself for the competition and danced up a storm, emerging with the coveted, starring role of Marie. But with great reward comes great responsibility.
The role of Marie is very demanding, as she is on stage for nearly the entire two-hour ballet.
“Sure, it was competitive, but we’re all such great friends,” Johnson said. “Nobody’s clawing at each other. Everyone danced the ballet’s party scene
for the audition, and then there were tryouts for the main roles.”
“Everyone knows Zaida,” said Jones, who came to OBT’s school last year. “She has the most bubbly and sunny personality, which makes her a perfect
choice for Marie. Also, she is extremely dedicated, bright, and knows the steps, the musicality and the combinations.
“One of the things I noticed when I became director of the school, was that Zaida was always center and front in the ballet studio,” Jones continued. “Sometimes she concentrates so hard that she doesn’t breathe.” This comment elicited giggles from Johnson.
A lifetime at the barre
Johnson, who is in sixth grade at da Vinci Arts Middle School, has attended OBT most of her life. She attended class once a week from ages 3 to 7, and now attends classes four days a week along with rehearsals.
In addition to ballet, Johnson has trained in improvisation, mime, character, modern dance and Pilates, much of it during OBT’s Summer Intensive. While it always will be a ballet school at heart, OBT believes it’s important for students to have exposure to other dance forms.
To enable her to attend OBT, the school has had Johnson on scholarship from the very beginning.
“We don’t have much money, so sometimes it’s hard,” Johnson said. Her mom works in restaurants and her father co-owns a Bunk Sandwiches shop.
“Zaida really earns those scholarships,” Jones said. “Some are financial based, but they’re also based on talent and hard work. We want to make the school accessible for the broadest range of students possible, so we invest quite a bit in our scholarship program.”
The investment in Zaida and her love of dance certainly has paid off. She has appeared in other OBT productions, performing as the butterfly’s understudy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as the school’s annual performance every year. Last year, she also danced in “The Nutcracker,” playing the part of Marie’s naughty little brother, Fritz.
But clearly, the role of Marie is a big leap forward.
“What I like most about performing is still the dancing, but acting also is a part of it,” she said. “You get to act and have fun with it. You still have to do the steps, but you also have fun.”
For example, when dancing the famous dream sequence, Johnson has the entire stage to herself. “It appears as though she’s running everywhere, but it’s all perfectly choreographed,” Jones explained. “She has to be in certain places on certain cues of the music, which requires talent and intelligence. When she’s on stage, she’s an absolute natural.”
By late November, preparations for opening night ramped up to daily rehearsals. “Most of the ballet already had been taught, but then we put it together with professional dancers,” Johnson said.
Soloists Candace Bouchard and Martina Chavez will both dance the part of the Sugarplum Fairy for the first time this December. “Once we move our rehearsals into the Keller, it gets pretty intense,” Jones said. “We have stage rehearsals, as well as lighting, costume, and orchestra rehearsals — all the things that have to come together for a professional production.”
Zaida added that she has to remind her mom to bring lots of tissues for opening night.
Looking ahead, Johnson said she loves school, particularly writing and drawing, but still enjoys dancing the most. Her goal? “Obviously, to be a professional dancer,” Johnson said. “It feels amazing once you form a relationship with the stage. I want to see where that takes me. Maybe New York.”
OBT, which is celebrating its 25th year, is enjoying its 12th year performing George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.” According to OBT, it remains the only company west of the Mississippi licensed to perform his choreography for this classic holiday work.
For showtimes visit obt.org.
Photos: Nutcracker (l):TatianaWills; Zaida: Jingzi Photography; Production photos: Blaine Truitt Covert