When Studio West Dance Academy offered a free boys dance class in the summer of 2009, Emily McMason could never have guessed it would set her and her son, Cole, on a path that would land them both onstage in The Nutcracker.
“Cole took the class and loved it,” Emily remembers. “Then they encouraged him to audition for Nutcracker.”
The first-time production needed parents for the party scene and Cole, who was eight at the time, turned to Emily and said, “Mom will you dance with me?”
Emily laughs at the memory. “I thought, okay, what eight-year-old boy actually wants to spend time with their parents? I’d better run with this for as long as I can.”
Two years later, the holidays quickly approaching, Emily and Cole are deep in rehearsals for their third take on the holiday classic. Cole will again play Fritz – the younger brother who breaks his sister Clara’s nutcracker – and this year Emily steps into the role of Clara and Fritz’s mother for the second time.
Each year, from the start of auditions through the last performance, Emily and Cole commit to heaps of rehearsals, meeting at least once a week – and even more often, right before the show opens.
All of the young dance students must audition for parts, while their parents volunteer for the adult roles in the ballet. Each year, one or two professional dancers are hired for principal roles.
Emily and Cole were both cast as general partygoers their first year. But Cole unexpectedly found himself flung into the role of Fritz during the last matinee performance of the run.
Due to a misunderstanding on the timing of the show, the boy who played Fritz never arrived.
“So, literally with five minutes before curtain went up, they pulled Cole aside and said, ‘We know you can do this,’” Emily recounts.
“As a parent, you want to provide your kids with the tools to be successful,” she says. “Well, Cole had never rehearsed it and he was about to walk out onstage in front of 500 people and all I could think was, ‘I didn’t give him the tools! I didn’t give him the tools!’
She can laugh now, but in the moment nerves took over and she says she’d never felt so sick to her stomach.
“What is amazing about Cole is how observant he is,” she says. “That opening is a 25-minute scene and he pulled off the whole thing. He’d never practiced it, but he’d observed that boy’s role and he knew all the queuing.”
Thinking back on it still gives her goose bumps.
Emily had taken ballet as a little girl, but never performed onstage. So for both herself and Cole, this was new, scary, exhilarating territory.
“That first year, it was butterflies like I’ve never felt in my life,” she says. “But there was also this amazing energy that came with it and a sense of community and creating it together.”
Emily and Cole were in at the ground level of Studio West’s first major production, and helping to create it was, she says, such a unique experience. “It was stunning to be a part of it.”
Studio West Dance Academy co-directors and Olympia natives Stephanie Wood and Mary Cecelia Zechmann joined together in 2008 to open the dance studio.
Stephanie trained and performed with the world-renowned San Francisco Ballet School, and then joined Ballet Memphis at age 18 and danced professionally for six years.
Mary Cecelia began dancing at the age of six, studying under Bridgette de’Calle at the Ballet School of Olympia. She was awarded several dance scholarships and performed with Ballet Omaha’s School of Dance and the Creighton Dance Division while attending college at Omaha’s Creighton University.
Studio West has grown by leaps and bounds, and now boasts a student base of 600, with more than 80 classes offered weekly and 17 artistic staff members.
And make no mistake, Studio West’s production of The Nutcracker ranks right up there with any big city’s show.
“Stephanie danced professionally for years, so she brings a professional expectation level to the shows she creates,” explains Emily. “Also, all the sets and costumes were purchased from a professional ballet company, so when you’re in the audience, it’s visually a really stunning way to tell the story.”
“The dancing is so appropriate and complex and graceful that you get caught up in the magic of this story, which kids of all ages are a part of telling,” she continues.
Emily has enjoyed watching the Studio West students’ talents progress over the last two years.
“It’s fun to watch as all of the kids grow and their skill level grows, and they get cast into different roles. That’s one of the incredible strengths of Stephanie and M.C. as directors,” Emily says, “They really know each child and cast them in a role that’s appropriate for who they are as a dancer, and then help use that to raise everybody’s skill level up just a little bit higher.”
In fact, many of the high school-aged girls are now so talented that one of them is dancing the role of the Sugarplum Fairy this year, which had previously been filled by an outside, professional dancer.
Emily’s favorite part about being part of Studio West’s The Nutcracker? “It’s that feeling of the magic of the season,” she says. “Being in the production, dancing in it with Cole, and knowing that families come as a part of their tradition to celebrate the season – it adds to the magic even more.”
And Cole is already looking ahead to future productions: ““I can’t wait until my sister is old enough to be in The Nutcracker,” he says. “Then my Dad can’t resist anymore, and we can all dance together.”
Tickets for Studio West’s Nutcracker are on sale now, and going fast. Performances take place on December 16, 17, and 18 at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College.
Photo’s Courtesy Of Thi Dang