New Friends dance director plans surprising departure from traditional ‘Nutcracker’

Andrea Vazquez-Aguirre, visiting lecturer of dance at Friends University
Andrea Vazquez-Aguirre, visiting lecturer of dance at Friends University Friends University

Friends University’s new director of dance says the school’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” will continue — but with a jazzy twist.

Andrea Vazquez-Aguirre who has danced in professional companies in Mexico and the United States, recently was named visiting lecturer of dance at Friends.

She will take over the ballet program after its founders, Stan and Sharon Rogers, left the university in May.

“To me it’s like, ‘How can I be this link — honoring the tradition that the program has but also leading into some other new paths?” Vazquez-Aguirre said.

“I see myself as a bridge. I don’t want to ignore what happened before, but rather honor that and then keep moving.”

One noticeable change will be this year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” she said, which will feature Duke Ellington’s jazz interpretation of the Tchaikovsky score and contemporary choreography inspired by Jerome Robbins.

“I hope my students will be excited to explore the music and utilize their ballet technique along with other movement vocabulary,” Vazquez-Aguirre said.

The Rogerses, who founded the Friends ballet school together, were known for their annual production of “The Nutcracker” that played to sold-out crowds each holiday season. Stan Rogers choreographed and directed the production for 26 years.

Friends owns the “Nutcracker” sets and costumes, but the show’s choreography “was the intellectual property of our former faculty,” said Ken Stoltzfus, dean of the college of business, arts, sciences and education at Friends.

Vazquez-Aguirre “will bring her own special touch to that, I’m sure,” Stoltzfus said. “And I think that’s great. It would be an opportunity for us to try something new as a university.”

Seven students are enrolled this fall in the Friends dance program, which offers the only four-year ballet degree in Kansas. Vazquez-Aguirre said she plans to hold auditions for the Friends production of “The Nutcracker,” but they have not been scheduled.

Two other local dance companies — Ballet Wichita and Metropolitan Ballet — are planning classic “Nutcracker” productions this year. Ballet Wichita plans a return to traditional ballet after a 2017 production which, under the direction of a New York choreographer Sean McLeod, was billed as “The New Nutcracker.”

New York-based choreographer and director Sean McLeod talks about his reinvention of "The Nutcracker" with Ballet Wichita.

Friends University administrators spent much of the summer interviewing and vetting candidates to lead the dance program, and “Andrea just rose to the top of that process,” Stoltzfus said.

“We just had a strong sense that this is someone with an international presence and reputation, and a strong academic background,” he said.

Vazquez-Aguirre, 40, grew up in Mexico City and has a master of fine arts in dance from the State University of New York College at Brockport. She taught at the University of Texas at El Paso and most recently was a visiting assistant professor of dance at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

She and her husband, James Kaufmann, a jazz pianist, are co-directors of Another River Interdisciplinary Ensemble.

While she has a passion for modern, contemporary and folk dance traditions, Vazquez-Aguirre said she started as a classical ballet dancer and looks forward to “returning to my roots” at Friends.

“To me, coming back to ballet is absolutely delightful,” she said. “I love the technique, I love the history and the repertoire. So you’ll be seeing ballet but also different works from me and from my students.”

Stoltzfus said Joan Griffing, the new division of fine arts chair at Friends, will work with Vazquez-Aguirre to “chart the course for the future of our ballet program.”

“Ballet is the foundation, and we’re not looking to change that,” he said. “We don’t see the inclusion of other forms of dance as a departure from the foundation, but just to kind of broaden the experience that our students and our community have.”