Welcome back to Pointe of View! We are excited to sit down with Darla Hoover, Balanchine Trust répétiteur, Artistic Director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Artistic Director of Ballet Academy East in New York, and mom. Alabama Ballet is privileged to be able to work with Darla each year in preparation to bring George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® to the stage. Join us as we chat with Darla and get to know her and her pointe of view.
AB: Hi, Darla. Thanks for joining me today, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy Nutcracker rehearsal schedule to sit down with me, I know this season keeps you awfully busy with travel and everything. How are you today?
Darla: I’m well, thank you, and thank you for inviting me to do this with you. I looked forward to it, actually, it’s always fun to chat and catch people up on what’s going on. Yes, it’s a busy season, but honestly, with my life, there are no down seasons.
AB: There is no down seasons, every season is busy.
Darla: Yes, but this one becomes more special I would say because, in addition to being busy, it involves children to the greatest degree that you can possibly imagine. To see their wonder in the eyes as we rehearse, it’s just very special and it always has been.
AB: Let’s start by giving everyone a brief background about who you are and your role with the Balanchine Trust.
Darla: Who I am. Well, I won’t go into it everything, but probably what pertains to what you’re asking. I was a member of the New York City Ballet and had the great fortune of getting into the company at the time when Balanchine was still alive, and I only performed with the New York City Ballet. Upon retirement, I was asked to stage Balanchine’s Tarantella, just out of the blue, and I did so and then it just steamrolled from there. The Balanchine Trust used me for Balanchine ballets thereafter and I just fell into it, which was really lucky, and I enjoy the work very much, it’s a wonderful way to stay connected to the life that was so important to me for so many years.
AB: Right. That role, of course, requires a lot of traveling, and a lot of staging of productions, do you also teach the choreography? What else goes into that role?
Darla: Yes, I’m responsible for basically everything. I’m responsible for casting the ballet; I’m responsible for remembering every single person’s step the entire ballet. Every step that they do, yes. Then, in addition to where they are doing those steps on the stage, it has to be at a certain location on the stage at a given time, has to be musically as Balanchine interpreted it. In addition, the production values are part of my responsibility to make sure, A: the standards are met to be able to do the Balanchine ballet, but also just keeping, in general, lighting, and cues, and everything so it’s an accurate reproduction of the production and its dance step with the New York City Ballet.
AB: Great. What was it like when you first met George Balanchine? What was your impression of him?
Darla: Well, I was absolutely terrified for absolutely no reason. But at that time, and many people don’t believe me when I say, this I was really shy, I used to walk around my apartment just practicing saying, “Hello, how are you?”, because people would say, “Hello”, and I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth. I literally would walk around my apartment just practicing standard phrases and greetings. So, like I was saying, I was terrified of him for absolutely no reason because he was a very kind, polite, and gentle person, when you would pass him in the hallway he would just give a little nod, and smile, and say, “Hello, dear”, and walk on. I’d be, “Duh”.
AB: Just freeze up.
Darla: Yes, I would. I really regret it now. I used to look at some of the company members that I would see standing there and talking to him, and I was so jealous. I was, “How did they get to have such a special relationship with Mr. Balanchine?”, but that opportunity was open to all of us, I just didn’t seize the moment, I wasn’t mature enough at that time to be able to take that opportunity.
AB: With as many roles and titles as you have and with everything that you have going on, what is an average day in the life look like for you?
Darla: Well, let’s say this time of year, for instance, I was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet helping with the staging; they also have George Balanchine’s Nutcracker. I was there all last week, and I took a train up on Tuesday back to New York so that I could work with the students of Ballet Academy East. I taught that day, I taught the next morning and then jumped on a flight down here last night. It’s really always on the go.
What I’ve tried to do, my version of slowing down, is trying to be in one city in any given day as opposed to travel to two cities, because there was one scenario where I was going to go back from Carlisle to New York on Wednesday morning and then fly down here last night the same day. I’m trying to avoid that, that’s my version of slowing down.
Every hour is really accounted for because if I’m not in the studio, I’m doing something else that’s related to. For instance, I’m sitting here doing this podcast with you, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, it doesn’t feel like work to me, but every hour really of the day is accounted for, for me. When I got up in the morning, I never let my day start before 11:00 AM because I’m just way too cranky, I like to get up and have my own quiet time and work out. Then I usually go from 11:00 in the morning to about 11:00 at night.
AB: That’s a long day.
Darla: It’s a long day. It’s lucky I like what I do.
AB: That’s for sure, yes because that would make it even longer. Is that difficult for you to switch back and forth with your different roles going from working with professional companies to students, and so on? Or is that an easy transition?
Darla: Yes, it’s an easy transition for me, it keeps it super interesting. It really does. To have the opportunity to work with professionals, and then go in and get on my hands and knees and work with my seven-year-old, I love that, I really love that. It’s inspiring because you look at them and you think, you know what? I’m going to blink and they’re going to be the professionals that I’m working with next. Because that’s really how fast it feels sometimes. I was watching my advanced students at Ballet Academy East last night -and also the older I get the sappier I get- I was watching them and I was flashing back to all of them when they were just in level one at BAE. I remember having their bodies in my hands, getting them to do their very first arabesque, and then I’m seeing them rehearse, these beautiful pas de deuxs that night. I just get very nostalgic.
AB: What is it like for you staging a production like George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®?
Darla: What is it like. It’s a joy, it really is. I have to admit sometimes I get that overwhelmed feeling, like when you go shopping and all of a sudden they’re playing The Nutcracker music, and it’s still Halloween. That moment always is, “Oh my Gosh”, because the pressure. I have so much ahead of me, I have to get done before the audiences are seated and the curtain is going up. But to tell you the truth, once I get started, it’s so familiar to me and so enjoyable to me, and I genuinely love Balanchine’s Nutcracker, I think, boy, did he get it right. It’s just so delightful, and beautiful, and is entertaining for no matter what age you are, no matter where you come from, it relates to everybody. I really do enjoy the process.
AB: Obviously you’ve performed, if not been involved in a most every single role, if not every single role of this production. Do you have any favorites?
Darla: Well, not true. I only was a part of this production once I joined the New York City Ballet, so I never danced the children’s role in Balanchine’s Nutcracker. When Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet was in his infancy, and we did Marcia Dale Weary’s version of The Nutcracker, I was the children’s role in that. But in regards to Balanchine’s Nutcracker, no, I only danced the real ballet roles. I like everything I danced, except Marzipan.
Because I like to really move, and that one you’re pretty much in place. That was not my favorite, I’m sorry Mr. Balanchine. It just wasn’t my favorite, but everything else I really loved.
AB: What about even not just dancing, but as far as teaching, or staging? Or watching? Do you have a favorite part?
Darla: No, I really don’t. I really enjoy staging all the production, the whole production. I will say, and people don’t realize this, but the entrances into the party scene and the exits from the party scene, when the families are arriving and when the families are partying, can be the trickiest just to make that you get all the little nuances and it feels very tedious. The dancers, who feel like they’re not doing a lot, want to probably wring my neck when we go back and do it the tenth time because it wasn’t just right because they don’t realize at the moment that they’re really creating a beautiful tableau, beautiful scenario, and it feels like you’re doing nothing, but in actuality to get it right it’s tedious and detail-oriented.
Those can be a little bit challenging. Not anymore, but I remember initially I found it challenging. But as far as anything else, no, I enjoy staging the whole thing and watching it. The whole thing, I will say, God, how many years have I been doing this? 40 years? I’ve been involved with Balanchine’s Nutcracker either as a dancer, or as a repetiteur, and I have to say, I’m still surprised. I’ll see someone pull something, a step out in a way that I never saw done before and it just relates to the music so perfectly, and it’s so fun to see how people can still make it fresh for even me.
AB: Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Balanchine does a really great job of keeping the productions very fresh from year to year, too. I know that obviously, everything keeps a very rigorous structure but, isn’t it also part of your job to make sure that as a company performing this production that we are up to par on everything with Balanchine and that we’re staying fresh and obviously putting out the best product that we can?
Darla: Yes, it’s not easy to acquire a license to do George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. You have to be a certain caliber, and you have to maintain the extremely high standards, otherwise they just simply say, “Yes, I don’t think that you’re going to be dancing this anymore”.
AB: Let’s talk about, too, what sets Balanchine’s The Nutcracker apart from all these other productions that you see. What makes it so special and so different?
Darla: Well, I think what I was saying before, you don’t have to understand ballet to be able to go and enjoy it. He delivers the story in a very neat and tidy way that you absolutely know exactly what’s going on, even if you’re unfamiliar with ballet, and I think that’s a plus. Plus, the story he chose to tell is really beautiful. Some productions can be dark, and mysterious, and almost sinister, and he found a way to make it absolutely delightful. I think it touches the heart, like when you watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, the old, old, old version, and it’s a classic, you keep going back to it because it really touches a place in your heart that’s beautiful, and inspiring, and we all need to keep those thoughts in our head. I feel Balanchine did the exact same thing with his Nutcracker.
Then, choreographically, of course, Balanchine, like no other choreographer I know, his musicality is unparalleled. Most everyone is familiar with the Balanchine– Tchaikovsky, with the score. They’ve heard it, they hear it in stores, they hear it everywhere. They’re familiar with it, but Balanchine had the talent, the genius to be able to make you see the music, and people don’t know what you’re talking about until they see a Balanchine ballet and they go, “Now I understand what that phrase means”. But it’s the truth. It’s like putting on your most favorite sweater, you’re so comfortable, you know you’ll look good in it, you just sit there and feel great, and that’s Balanchine’s Nutcracker.
AB: What’s it like working with the Alabama Ballet Company versus other companies that you work with to stage this production?
Darla: Well, for this particular production, Balanchine’s Nutcracker, the places that do it, that I’m responsible for, I have a great familiarity with them all. In that sense, it’s no different, but it’s different from other staging. For instance, if I go another ballet, and I go and might be company I’ve never seen before, and that presents challenges of casting. You got X amount of minutes to cast a ballet and get it right, and then you’re building up a good working relationship with that company as you go.
The opposite is true when I come here to the Alabama Ballet, it almost feels like just returning to family each time, and I love that feeling. I really enjoy the enthusiasm of the dancers, and it just feels like a really good fit, I look forward to my trip down here.
AB: Yes, you’ve been coming down here for a week, we think 17 years now for doing–
Darla: Well, for the Balanchine’s Nutcracker yes, about 17 years, but I was here prior to that doing other Balanchine’s ballets, so my relationship with Alabama Ballet goes back. I would say at least 26 years or 25 years. Yes.
AB: Awesome that we haven’t scared you off yet.
Darla: No, you’re stuck with me, I loved it down here.
AB: Well, last but not least, I want to touch on what it’s like– because George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® includes nearly a hundred community casts dancers in the production, and I just wanted you to touch on what it’s like to have those young dancers in the studio and on stage with the professionals, and what that’s like for both the professionals too, working with a younger cast.
Darla: Well, isn’t that wonderful? What a unique situation in Alabama Ballet has, I think is absolutely wonderful. When we do the auditions and I cast it, I don’t know where anyone’s from, I just look to see who’s going to be best suited to these roles, and I love that it creates inclusiveness, I just love that. There’s that component to it where it brings children together that normally wouldn’t know each other and forms this little family bond throughout the season. But then, yes, of course, their opportunity to get on the stage with these professionals, you know is inspiring to them and you know in some way it’s going to change their life for the better.
AB: Because that could be them one day.
Darla: It could be them for one day. Or even if not, they learn. If you want to do something well, you have to work for it, and there’s so many components that I feel are important for the children in being able to participate in the community cast. Also, the dancers themselves, I don’t know that I’ve ever met a sugar plum who when dancing their variations surrounded by those little angels, doesn’t look at them and flashback to themselves being that age and what it meant to look up to someone like that. There’s no other better reason to dance.
AB: Yes, thank you for joining us; we know you have a busy weekend ahead of rehearsals with our professional company, as well as our community cast. Thank you again for joining us and letting everyone learn more about you.
Be sure and subscribe to our podcast on Spotify to be notified when the next episode comes out. Until next time, thanks for joining us.