The men of 'The Nutcracker'

It’s only natural to think of little Clara, of the Dew Drop Fairy and, of course, of the Sugar Plum Fairy when the holiday ballet “The Nutcracker” comes around each Christmas.

The delicate ballerinas with their graceful movements and lovely costumes command our attention as the classic story unfolds of a magical night in the Land of Sweets.

Often in the shadows are the men who dance alongside those ballerinas. There is the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, who gives Clara her beloved Nutcracker toy; the male characters who dwell in the Land of the Sweets; and the dashing Cavalier who shares a breathtaking pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In Wichita, audiences have grown to love those masculine characters in the two “Nutcracker” productions staged by Ballet Wichita and by Friends University/Wichita Ballet Theatre.

Here are just a few of the men who will occupy those roles in the next two weekends as “The Nutcracker” once again enchants holiday audiences.

If you go


Two productions of the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky will be performed in Wichita over the next two weekends. Here are the details:

Who: Friends University Ballet/Wichta Ballet Theatre

Where: Sebits Auditorium, Riney Fine Arts Center, Friends University

When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Dec. 12; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18, 2 p.m. Dec. 19

How much: Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. For more information, call 316-295-5677.

Who: Ballet Wichita

Where: Century II Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Dec. 12

How much: Tickets $12.50-$37.50 at www.wichitatix.com. Charge by phone, 316-219-4849.

“I’m very attracted to story ballets,” says Connor Walsh, who will perform as the Cavalier in the Friends production.


Eagle correspondent

It was probably inevitable that Conner Walsh found a job in ballet. He’s been dancing since age 7. Attending three of America’s best dance academies led to an appointment with the Houston Ballet.

Walsh, 24, will be featured Friday through Dec. 12 in Friends University Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” He’ll be Cavalier to Melody Herrera’s Sugar Plum Fairy, dancing to “The Nutcracker’s” most famous music in its gorgeous, climactic scene.

Herrera and Walsh are both principal dancers with Houston Ballet. On Dec. 17-19, Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle, principals in New York City Ballet, will dance the starring roles in “The Nutcracker.”

They’ll be surrounded by more than 85 Wichita-area dancers from the Friends University Ballet Department and Wichita Ballet Theatre, bringing to life America’s most-popular ballet.

“æ’The Nutcracker’ is a great ballet,” Walsh said. “Tchaikovsky made some of the best ballet music there is; that’s one of the main reasons it is so accessible to so many audiences.”

Houston Ballet will present 32 performances of “The Nutcracker” through Dec. 26 this year. (New York City Ballet will present 47.) At many of those performances, and at Friends, Walsh will partner with Herrera, with whom he has danced regularly for more than five years.

“I have always preferred dancing with a woman rather than dancing by myself,” Walsh said. “It’s a much more personal experience to be sharing your time onstage, working as a team and having the opportunity to share your artistry and play off of somebody rather than creating it all on your own.”

Walsh has been around ballerinas since he was a boy. He first took ballet lessons with his mother at the dance studios she ran in Maryland; his brother did, too.

“I started dancing because of the amount of time I was already spending at the dance studio,” Walsh said. “At that point it was less passion and more just curiosity. I was just going through the motions and having a good time. I wasn’t thinking about a serious career.”

After two years at the Kirov Academy of Dance in Washington, D.C., and a year at the Harid Conservatory in Florida — live-in programs that included school work, dance classes and dormitory living — at age 15 Walsh moved to Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy.

For the first time Walsh was part of a performing company. In addition to schoolwork, dance classes and studio rehearsals, Walsh observed and participated in Houston Ballet performances, an introduction to show business he found thrilling.

At age 18, after three years of training and finishing high school, Walsh joined Houston Ballet full time. He was promoted to principal dancer after three more years and found a home on the stage he doesn’t want to leave.

“I’m very attracted to story ballets” such as “The Nutcracker,” Walsh said. “I get a lot of pleasure out of analyzing a story, analyzing a role, trying to relate to it. The most difficult part is putting that into the choreography. The idea is the technique that we work so hard on — the strength that we work to build, the flexibility — should all be used to convey an emotion.”

The sheer physicality of ballet is also compelling. Walsh loves executing the giant leaps and athletic turns that are a feature of his solos in “The Nutcracker.”

“I’m a dancer for a reason,” he said. “I love to move; I love that feeling. I love warming up in class just as much as performing a story ballet.

“And so much about wowing an audience, making somebody excited — that is an emotion. If

somebody experiences a moment of surprise or a moment of amazement from what a dancer is doing, then the dancer is succeeding. The audience has to walk away feeling something.”

Dorio Perez, who will dance the role of Herr Drosselmeyer, has performed in “The Nutcracker” since he was 11.


Eagle correspondent

Dorio Perez has danced many parts in many ballets over his 30-year career, but he considers “The Nutcracker” to be “one of the nicest pieces ever written.”

Next weekend, Perez, a British native who spent most of his dancing career with Houston Ballet, will play the role of Herr Drosselmeyer in Ballet Wichita’s performance of the Nutcracker.

Perez has danced in the Christmas classic since he was 11 and has performed the role of Drosselmeyer at least 20 times. Just two weeks ago he played the role in a production in Houston and will bring the toymaker to life for the second year in a row with Ballet Wichita.

In the ballet written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Drosselmeyer is a magical figure who brings toys to children at a Christmas Eve celebration. He gives a special nutcracker to young Clara, opening a door to a winter fantasy that has captivated audiences since the ballet’s premiere in 1892.

“He’s a magical type of entertaining conjurer who basically loves children and wants to see their smiling faces,” Perez said. He has danced the role of the Cavalier in “The Nutcracker” many times, but says he prefers to play the dramatic characters like Drosselmeyer because “they are much more juicy.”

Perez’s dance career started in London, then took him to the National Ballet in Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and then to the Houston Ballet for the final 23 years of his career. He moved to Wichita last year after his wife found a job here.

At the age of 5, Perez attended dance lessons along with his sister. He explains that his mother told him she enrolled him in dance because she worried he “would have torn the house up” if left alone during his sister’s lessons.

He found himself drawn to the world of dance and classical music. “Just being able to dance to music .æ.æ. it was a pleasure to do.”

His breakthrough role, he said, came in a highly theatrical piece called “Prodigal Son (in ragtime),” where he was required to make seven costume changes in one hour, challenging him both as a dancer and an actor.

“I always had a fondness for acting,” Perez said. “It is a lot easier to play characters (other) than a prince every single time. Sometimes being the ugly witch in the ballet is much more fun.”

Today, Perez teaches master classes to aspiring young dancers and comes out of retirement at Christmas to perform in “The Nutcracker.”

Whether in London, Houston or Wichita, Perez says watching the ballet with friends and family keeps the Christmas tradition of the Nutcracker alive.

“If people come to see the Nutcracker at Ballet Wichita, hopefully the tradition will become part of their own family.”

In Ballet Wichita’s production, Isaac Stappas will dance

opposite his wife, Kristi Boone.


The Wichita Eagle

Isaac Stappas’ ballet career had a bit of a contentious start.

He was 8 years old and in the car with his mom and sister, on the way to her ballet lesson.

Halfway there, his mother informed him that she wanted him to audition to dance at his sister’s school.

“I threw a fit and everything,” Stappas said. “She said, ‘Do it for me. If you don’t like it, you never have to go back.’æ”

He liked it.

Today, 21 years later, Stappas is a professional dancer with a spot in New York City’s prestigious American Ballet Theatre.

He’ll dance the role of the Cavalier in Ballet Wichita’s “Nutcracker” opposite his wife, Kristi Boone, also an American Ballet Theatre dancer.

After years of after-school classes, Stappas enrolled in the North Carolina School for the Arts, where he studied for nine years.

He moved to New York City to pursue dance when he was 17 and landed his job with American Ballet Theatre in 1998. Since then he has danced countless roles with the company of 80 dancers, including Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet,” Hilarion in “Giselle” and Von Rothbart in “Swan Lake.”

Like many ballet company dancers, Stappas takes advantages of weekends off to accept jobs dancing in performances across the country.

A friend from the company first invited him to perform in Ballet Wichita’s “Nutcracker” two years ago, and it was his first exposure to Kansas.

“Everyone was very professional and a pleasure to work with,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to come back. It was a great environment.”

The role of the Cavalier in “The Nutcracker” is one Stappas says he loves and has danced “hundreds of times” during his career.

He particularly loves dancing the role opposite his wife, he said.

“We’ve done it since we’ve been together, so we know what we need to do for each other to get the performance we want,” he said.

All these years later, Stappas says he and his mother still joke about that fateful car ride.

“I tease her more about conning me,” he said. “But I think it was a good move on her part to expose me to as much as possible.”