Walsh's Cavalier: Analysis, emotion

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.

"'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."