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Louisville Ballet's 'Nutcracker' Is a Family Production For the Audience and, This Year, the Dancers

Gabriela Velinov, Natalia Ashikhmina and Phillip Velinov
Gabriela Velinov, Natalia Ashikhmina and Phillip Velinov

A dancer portraying Marie sat atop a rolling bed, pushed round the Louisville Ballet's rehearsal space by a colleague in the role of the Nutcracker prince.

Trailing them were two lines of tiny angels—ballet students—with shimmering golden wings. Louisville audiences have watched this scene on stage year after year, but Emily Reinking O'Dell has seen it more often than most.

A Louisville Ballet veteran, O'Dell has danced many roles in her 15 seasons with the company. This year, she'll be paying extra close attention to those tiny dancers—one of them is her 7-year-old daughter, Maya.

“I love it," O'Dell said. "I guess I never thought I’d be able to dance this long and have a child along the way, and that that child would want to dance. Her dad was also a dancer, so it’s in the family. We never wanted to push it, but she just loved it.”

The "Nutcracker" is the family-friendliest of ballets, reliably drawing smartly dressed young people happily adhering to an annual holiday tradition. The family-friendliness extends this year to two sets of kin in the Louisville Ballet, making for a rare display of multi-generational ballet performance.

Like O'Dell, Phillip Velinov and Natalia Ashikhmina will perform multiple roles this year—his include the mysterious Drosselmeyer, her roles include the Sugar Plum Fairy.

And they'll also play the role of performer's parent.

Their 8-year-old daughter Gabriela Velinov is also one of the angels.

A veteran dancer, Phillip Velinov said the "Nutcracker" captures "the whole spirit of the holiday" to make for a great family production that their family gets to share this year. Ashikhmina added, however, that the production is also making a production out of the family's lives these day. She recalled the logistical challenges that began with the first meeting of the angels' parents this fall.

“My eyes get rounder and rounder and bigger," she said. "And I was, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to make it?’ It’s challenging organizing all three—schedulewise, timingwise, energywise—and being on top of every and each member of the family.”

No matter, she said.

"I'm very excited—and nervous," she said.

Gabriela said she's also exited and nervous—in the past she's watched from backstage, but this year will be totally different.

When Ashikhmina asked her how she'll handle her nerves, Gabriela responds: “Take deep breaths? Pretend you’re breathing in blue skies and breathing out gray skies?”

“Very nice," Ashikhmina said.

Ashikhmina said she'll resist the urge to get too involved in Gabriela's performance—to let her daughter perform in "her own way."

O'Dell said she'll also have to resist that urge with Maya's performance.

“Because that’s the right thing to do, right?" she said. "As a person who’s done it, that went through everything and got lucky enough to find a professional dancing job, when I see her it’s hard not to have things to say.

"But we try to keep them to ourselves. In general, we just want her to have fun, and we’re pretty blessed because she is a smart kid who pays attention. She’s easy."

Multi-generational performances in ballet are becoming less rare, said Robert Curran, who is in his first season at the Louisville Ballet's artistic director.

In the past, dancers tended to put off having children until they were older because of a lack of flexibility toward families within companies, he said. But the Louisville company, he said, has a history of being welcoming to families. Plus, dancers are performing for more years than ever before.

Velinov credits Curran's predecessor, the retired Bruce Simpson, with fostering a flexible attitude within the company toward families. Curran said he intends to continue the practice.

"I think it's incredibly important," Curran said. "It's the right thing to do, first and foremost, but it's incredibly important for them—artists need to have life experiences to tell the stories that they need to tell."

The result is a dream come true for Maya O'Dell.

"The Nutcracker" is her favorite ballet.

“I like how they do the magic on stage, and I like how it looks like it’s really happening." Maya said. "And I think everybody who is watching it will feel happy when they’re watching it.”

"The Brown-Forman Nutcracker" opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 21.

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

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