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After last year's messy
ouster of the artistic director
of the Redwood Concert Ballet, the holiday classic is back in
story & photos by
THE NUTCRACKER. IT'S THE QUINTESSENTIAL Humboldt holiday dance
event, a local tradition that began over 25 years ago when a
Eureka dance teacher, Virginia Niekrasz-Laurent, put on the ballet
for the first time. Niekrasz went on to form a nonprofit dance
company, Redwood Concert Ballet, a group that staged Nutcracker
every year -- until last year.
In September 2001 the company's
board of directors dismissed Niekrasz from her position as artistic
director, a move that sent shock waves through the local dance
world. It wasn't until January, after a holiday season without
a Nutcracker performance, that her job was filled by her
former balletmaster, Danny Furlong. [ in photo above ]
Today, Furlong and a new group
of Redwood Concert Ballet dancers are at work preparing a rebirth
of the Nutcracker, to be performed at the Van Duzer Theatre
the weekend before Christmas. Meanwhile, Niekrasz is mounting
her own holiday show, set to open this weekend. After regrouping
her students under the name BRAVA! DanceEureka, she is putting
the finishing touches on a production called A Humboldt County
Christmas Past, Present... and Future -- one that happens
to include "The Nutcracker Suite," an excerpt from
the classic ballet.
ballet moms sewing costumes into the wee hours, leaders from
both dance companies speak of moving forward and putting the
past behind. But as the two performances near, it's clear the
wounds are not completely healed.
At the heart of the controversy
is why the board gave the boot to Niekrasz, the venerable and
much-loved teacher to hundreds of young Humboldt County dancers.
One line of speculation is that she ran afoul of the company's
chief financial backers, Rob and Cherie Arkley, after she made
a casting decision that was unfavorable to their youngest daughter.
Another school of thought is that Niekrasz' strong-willed, uncompromising
persona, combined with some minor differences over financial
matters, finally wore thin with the group's board of directors.
What actually happened is likely
to remain shrouded in mystery. Because it's a personnel issue,
board members are prevented from discussing details. Niekrasz
signed a non-disclosure agreement when she left.
One thing is clear. The turning
point for Redwood Concert Ballet was a generous gift: In 1999
the Arkleys, parents of two ballerinas, gave the organization
a half million dollars for a building on F Street where a new
and spacious dance studio was created. As Furlong put
it, "The building changed everything." [building in photo above left]
In the course of a year the
RCB board went from a $67,000 budget and assets that were basically
limited to boxes of costumes, props and sets, to a budget in
excess of $270,000. Assets included the new building valued at
[ in photo at right] was born in
Eureka, where she learned to dance. At the age of 4 she became
a student at Betty Merriweather's School of Ballet in an old
house on H Street that was Merriweather's home and her dance
studio. Many years later, Niekrasz took over the studio and it
became her own home, and home to her business, the Dancers Studio.
"When I first came in here
I was frightened to death. I was a very shy child. No one can
believe that now," she recalled when we sat down in a room
just inside the front door, an anteroom that leads to a studio
with mirrored walls.
Years of training paid off and
when she was old enough Niekrasz went to New York to dance professionally.
"I did night club work, jazz dance; I did a season with
Pittsburgh Light Opera doing summer stock. I quit dance for a
year, but it tugged at my heartstrings. I had to get back to
Returning to California, she
worked for a while in San Francisco with the dancer Merriem Lanova.
"Then I was offered this studio on a one-year trial basis
while Betty was still living here. I said, `Okay, you know what?
I'm going to go back to Eureka and put the studio on its feet.
I'm going to do something.' And I did. I perhaps gave up my [own]
dance career a bit early, but I'm not sad."
That was in 1972. With the establishment
of the Dancers Studio, she developed a strong support group,
basically mothers of young ballerinas. They helped her put on
recitals, then two years later she mounted her first production
"We were sitting around
one day talking and I said, `What do you think about doing Nutcracker?
Your daughter [she said to one of the ballet moms] would
be a great Clara.' And it just happened. We had a yard sale out
front. We made $150 and thought we were rich, so we went for
The production was a success.
Performances were held for schools and for the public in Ferndale,
in Fortuna and in Eureka. "By the time we hit Eureka for
our final performance we had to hold the curtain at least 20
minutes because people were lined up around the block. It was
For the first 10 years Niekrasz
performed the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and she continued
to dance other prominent roles for 10 more years. She also served
as teacher, choreographer and ballet mistress, not to mention
coordinating sound, lighting, sets, costumes and staging.
course, the annual production went hand in hand with her work
at the studio. "Dancers have to perform. Ballet technique
is about repetition. Your muscles learn it and you expand it.
But you need that recital to prove what you can do.
"I've seen it again and
again, the incredible difference between a kid who is taking
ballet class, a normal kid doing the exercises; then you put
them in a part onstage and `boom,' this whole new personality
emerges, this desire and inspiration that makes them improve
Nourishing dancers and watching
them grow is clearly Niekrasz' life work and her passion. She
can go on and on about dancers from her studio who went on to
professional careers. She displays their photos on the walls
of her studio along with some new additions: proclamations she
received at a ceremony in November from the county, the state
and Congress honoring her for "30 years of dedication to
dance in Humboldt County."
There's a key point to remember
in any attempt to understand how Niekrasz, an honored teacher,
could end up losing her company. While she trained her dancers
at her own studio, a private business where she called all the
shots, Redwood Concert Ballet was a nonprofit, one with an independent
board of directors where it is up to a majority to decide what
was best for the company.
"I had a board for 20 years
that did whatever I asked them to do," said Niekrasz. "When
I needed something done, someone would take care of it. None
of them were rich, but they worked their tails off because they
believed in what I was doing.
"I was it. People did things
for me," she said.
But over the years the makeup
of the board changed. Not all of the members were ballet moms
who "did things" for her. And while no one ever questioned
Niekrasz' dedication to dance, questions began to surface about
other things -- such as the fact that the company's annual spring
production was a consistent money-loser. And, Arkleys aside,
the fact that Niekrasz was set in her beliefs and intent on doing
things her own way probably didn't help matters much.
On Sept. 24, 2001, the board
voted to remove her as artistic director and it became painfully,
shockingly clear that the board Niekrasz had dominated for so
long had turned on her. Two board members resigned in protest.
In the end, as Niekrasz put
it, "The company that I founded and directed for almost
30 years was taken away from me.
"The dancers were devastated.
We had a meeting the next night. I said, `Look, you guys, I'm
still here. We are together, and we are going to do things.'
I got involved with Falderal [a holiday dance production last
year] and eight of my dancers performed. In many ways, I'm [now]
back where I was, and I'm very comfortable with it."
"The transition was an awkward situation for
a lot of people, myself included," said Furlong, as we sat
down to lunch in Old Town. "I have nothing but praise for
Virginia Niekrasz. I came up here to work for her. And Virginia
worked long and hard to build this organization. I have complete
respect for her and wish her only the best. She is an absolutely
tireless woman. She is an institution."
Furlong said the director's
position is not all that different from his old job as balletmaster.
"Balletmaster is a person who teaches class and rehearses
ballets," he explained. "Just about anybody who is
a director is a balletmaster. I am artistic director, but I am
still the balletmaster, which means I have to whip people into
shape. I also use the term dance coach."
Furlong grew up near Pittsburgh,
Pa., "where I did not study any dance whatsoever."
He left home at 18, "the day after I graduated from high
school," catching a train for California.
He discovered dance at Chaffey
College, a junior college in southern California. "I studied
a little bit of modern dance my first year and became very intoxicated
by the form."
One of the first things he saw
in class was a videotape of a piece by the choreographer Martha
Graham. In one section, "the men came out from upstage left
doing a series of barrel turns, a jump where you throw your torso
up and over the top. They seemed to be flying, just flying.
"I was always athletic.
I love to run, jump and climb, and I thought to myself that moment,
`If I do nothing else in my life, I am going to do that.' It
was the only time in my life I ever made a clear decision."
At first he wanted to focus
on modern dance, but he soon discovered the world of ballet.
After studying briefly at Riverside Ballet Arts he headed back
East on a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New
He spent four years dancing in the city, followed
by five years in Canada. Along the way he experimented with choreography.
Drawn back to California, he danced with Alonzo King's LINES
Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco and with San Francisco Opera
Ballet, where he has been part of the company for 13 seasons.
"I played all sorts of
roles: fantasy creatures, young men and old, clowns, kings --
I played kings a lot. In fact, I would say the chapter on the
opera ballet in my autobiography would be titled `Kings and Clowns.'"
Off-season he often hung out
in Southern Humboldt on property owned by his partner, Alfred
Tix. Despite the remoteness, he found there was a dance company,
Feet First Dancers, but not necessarily one that had been exposed
to ballet, and he volunteered his time as dance master.
He began coming to the northern
part of the county, first as a guest artist for a 1994 RCB production
of Nutcracker where he played the Cavalier, then again
when Niekrasz invited him to teach at a summer session for the
"I donated my time to help
with a Swan Lake production she did, coached the dancers
and taught, then I was hired to be balletmaster."
Not long after the meeting where
Niekrasz was dismissed, the RCB board announced that they were
offering the artistic director spot to Furlong. He accepted,
but not without some hesitation because of his respect for Niekrasz.
Looking back on it, he said
the force of his former mentor's personality was her undoing.
"Virginia is a self-made
person and strong-willed, and like most self-made people, she
has a stubborn streak," said Furlong. "It comes from
knowing you can get something done. I just think that, with the
acquisition of the new building, the enterprise got to a place
and a level where the board was not happy with the way it was
"The building is a magnificent
facility, one of the finest environments of its kind in Northern
California. It was definitely one of the factors of my taking
the job when it was offered to me."
Even before we sat down to talk,
Furlong expressed a desire to "dispel some of the myths"
about how he ended up in charge of the company, and why Niekrasz
lost her position.
"There's a mythology that
I was somehow behind it. I wasn't even here when it happened,"
he explained. In fact, he said, he wasn't even available until
the end of the year, more than three months after Niekrasz' dismissal.
Furlong addressed another much-gossiped-about
issue -- that the Arkleys pushed for Niekrasz' dismissal after
she decided not to cast their younger daughter as Clara, one
of the starring roles in The Nutcracker.
"That is absolute malarkey.
I hate to even talk about it, but it puts the Arkleys, who I
see as friends, in a bad light and I don't feel it's justified
Former board member Donna Hunter
is quick to admit that she does not see the Arkleys as friends
and that she herself is totally biased: Virginia Niekrasz is
her daughter. Hunter was one of the board members who resigned
when Niekrasz was fired.
"Virginia has never played
favorites with her dancers," said Hunter. "This all
happened because some little girl didn't get the part her parents
wanted her to get. They worked on it for a year and a half until
they got her [Niekrasz] out of there."
Cherie Arkley, former Eureka
City Council member who last month narrowly lost a bid to become
mayor, vehemently denied the allegation.
"People attribute a lot
more power to us than we have," she said. "We didn't
have any power to remove her at all. All we wanted to do was
gift the building to make a new space for the company. That's
"It's true our daughter
did not get Clara. And being parents we were momentarily upset.
But we got over it rather quickly.
"People don't think about
the chronology," she continued. "The board did not
vote on Virginia's removal until two years [after that]. Let's
not forget, in the meantime, after our daughter was denied the
part, we still gave the F Street building to the board of directors.
We could have stopped it if we were that mad."
Like other board members, Arkley
will not discuss what happened at the meeting on Sept. 24.
"There were 10 members
on the board and I was only one person. I didn't even know most
of the people on the board. It's amazing this notion of the big,
bad, ugly, evil, mean Arkleys; it's not true," she said.
"I was there," said
Hunter. "It was cut and dried, decided before the meeting
even started. There were three or four brand new members who
voted her out. What does that tell you? Would you ever go on
a board that you'd never been on and vote for somebody to be
dismissed who was there for 27 years?
"Those people were brought
on to the board for this purpose. It all had to do with money.
The board figured if they went along with the Arkleys they would
continue to support the company, which they have.
"It's very sad," Hunter
concludes. "Virginia gave her life to this, put her heart
and soul into it. It was even more sad for her dancers."
Arkley conceded that the decision
was painful, but said everyone needs to move on. "From the
bottom of my heart I wish the best to Virginia and for the Dancers
Studio and for her new company. We do not want to live in the
past and in anger," she added.
The holiday ballet, The Nutcracker ,
begins with a Christmas party. Gifts are exchanged, including
a very special present, a beautiful nutcracker, given to a girl
named Clara by her godfather. In a fit of jealousy, Clara's brother,
Fritz, grabs the nutcracker and it is broken.
Clara is heartsick, and sensing this, her
godfather tries to fix the toy. The guests depart and everyone
goes to bed, but Clara is restless. Worried about her precious
nutcracker she returns to the Christmas tree, where strange things
Clara is transported to a dream world.
Before long a battle is raging as a Mouse King and his army capture
Clara and the Nutcracker comes to life to attempt a rescue. When
the Nutcracker is also captured, Clara steps in and deals a fatal
blow to the Mouse King.
In another transformation the Nutcracker becomes a handsome prince
and Clara is whisked away to magic lands of snow and sweets before
awakening to find herself once again beneath the tree clutching
her beloved nutcracker.
One of the major hurdles Furlong
faced when taking on the role of artistic director was that,
with a few exceptions, RCB's dancers stuck with Niekrasz. Allegiances
run deep in the dance world. Most of the other ballet dancers
in the area trained with Nadine Cole, director of the New World
Youth Ballet, and they weren't about to dance for Danny either.
"All dancers have loyalties
to their main teacher -- and that's to be expected," said
Furlong. "I held two auditions for dancers who were interested
in being part of [Nutcracker] and no one showed up from
either of the major ballet studios here. It's unfortunate that
their loyalty does not permit them to come and get some of what
"I had to rebuild the school
from the ground up when I came. It was very hard. I had two students
in the beginning. Now I'm at the point where I have a full classroom
of dancers. They're not advanced, they're definitely intermediate,
but I have started a lot of people off who never would have started,
particularly my men. No man who is 30 years old will feel comfortable
in a room full of teenaged girls, but I have a 30-year-old carpenter
who feels comfortable, because there are people his age, men
"Virginia and Nadine have
cornered the market of teenage girls. I'm offering an opportunity
for those who want to figure it out a little later in life, as
I did. That was a goal of mine, to bring in older dancers."
As for the daunting task of
putting together a Nutcracker production with a still
evolving company, Furlong is not worried. "The Nutcracker
is the indestructible ballet of all time. I have done it everywhere
as a guest artist; I have danced pretty much every [male] role;
I have been involved in every aspect," including staging
And he wants Humboldt County
to be prepared for something different.
"It's not going to look
the same. For one thing, Virginia's production was based on a
production she learned in San Francisco: Merriem Lanova's. She
did it in three acts; ours will be two acts.
"This is not an avant garde
Nutcracker, it's definitely classical, completely honoring
its past, but it's also more far-reaching in its scope and dance
value. It is not based solely on ballet."
One thing that will be quite
different this year is the corps, the group of ballerinas who
take center stage for the big numbers. While Niekrasz typically
used the top of her class and augmented with returning alumni
and occasional guest dancers, Furlong is bringing a bevy of ballerinas
up from the Bay Area.
"I didn't have enough quality girls on point
to fill out my corps, so I hired extra girls from the city,"
he explained. "The irony of ironies is that what normally
is a series of teenaged girls being partnered by middle-aged
guys will end up being local men who are learning to partner
with girls from somewhere else."
Another change in the works
is the company's new name -- North Coast Dance. "We wanted
to make a separation from the past. That's the basic reason,"
Arkley explained. "We want to start anew, start fresh. We
will retain the [old] name for a few years just to show continuity,
to show the public that it's basically the same organization."
Furlong said he sees the name
change as part of his plan to bring the company into the 21st
century. "Ballet is a dying art form, and it's dying because
of overkill, overkill in sweetness and overkill in attempts to
outdo the previous success. With ballet, too much of it can go
the wrong way. It does not always have to be point shoes."
As for Niekrasz, she has to
all appearances put the past behind her. She remains fiercely
dedicated to her young dancers, and she is fully involved in
her new dance company.
The other day things were bustling
at the Dancers Studio. Rehearsals were underway for a holiday
production that will include 50 dancers from 6 years old on up.
"It's a totally new concept,"
Niekrasz explained. "There are some memorable moments from
past productions of Nutcracker which will have a different
twist. Then I pulled together different pieces of music, hopefully
things that are recognizable as holiday music, traditional music,
classical and contemporary."
With dances set to tunes like
"Baby, It's Cold Outside," it will be different. But
what makes it a Humboldt County thing?
"We pulled it down to a
more basic level," she said. "It's not like when you
go to the opera and think, `This is so highfalutin,' but that
doesn't mean it's dowdy. I just finished choreographing the whole
thing last night. The ballet gods were smiling. I'm hoping there's
something for everyone in there."
As we finished our interview,
a pounding sounded at her door: It was deliverymen bringing a
huge box holding a painted backdrop. Another box in the hall
held new costume pieces that came in earlier. There were more
costumes in progress on sewing machines in the anteroom. It was
clear that Niekrasz had lots to do, and that the work had her
exhilarated. But before we parted she wanted to add one more
"I'm doing this production
for my students, for the community, for all of the people who
look to me to produce something for their holiday enjoyment,"
she said with building passion. "I think it's important
that I maintain and do things for my dancers because they are
going on into the dance world. That's why I'm here. This production
is about the dancers.
"And I have to tell you
they are doing an incredible job. There are moments that are
stunning, moments that are charming, moments that will just make
people want to sing. It's joyful, really joyful."
Dance Eureka presents
A Humboldt County Christmas, Past, Present and Future
Saturday, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Dec. 15
at 3 p.m. at Eureka High Auditorium. Call 443-4390 for reservations.
Dance/Redwood Concert Ballet presents
The Nutcracker Friday, Dec. 20, at 8 p.m. Two shows are
scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 21, "The Sugarplum Matinee"
at 2 p.m. and an 8 p.m. performance. A final matinee is set for
Sunday, Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. Call 442-7779 for reservations.
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