1 of 5
Photo by Jay Paul
From left: Judy Jacob works with Lillian Crocker and Ella Spruill on the role of Clara in The Nutcracker.
2 of 5
Photo by Jay Paul
Jacob instructs Maxwell Follmer (Prince) and Ella Spruill (Clara) during a Nutcracker rehearsal
3 of 5
Photo by Jay Paul
Jacob works with Nutcracker “dolls” and Clara: (from left) Olympia Theofanos, Ella Spruill, Elizabeth Kardos and Julia Dinkin.
4 of 5
Photo by Aaron Sutten
Jacob as Lady Capulet in 2010 with Richmond Ballet dancer Phillip Skaggs in Malcom Burn’s Romeo and Juliet.
5 of 5
Photo courtesy of Judy Jacob
Jacob with Joel Grey in Cabaret
On a Sunday afternoon in October, the work to prepare the cast for The Nutcracker begins at the Richmond Ballet. Excited young dancers are lined up, waiting to be fitted by costume director Emily DeAngelis. Putting spats, capes, pantaloons and nightgowns on everyone is a big task, since there are 74 different children’s roles in the December production.
In Judy Jacob’s dual capacity as School of Richmond Ballet head and the company’s associate artistic director, she provides a layer of expertise on a process that demands constant evaluation. She recalls the anxiety in 2010 when New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay conducted his pilgrimage to see a Nutcracker in every state.
“We knew for weeks in advance that he was coming,” Jacob says. “We were in our final preparations and wondering, ‘How can we make it better?’ And in the end, we were just ourselves. Turned out — of course — we worried for nothing. He was completely charmed and loved our production.” Macaulay deemed it the most perfect version of the 23 he’d seen at that point, and wrote the now-familiar line, “This is a real company, dancing a show it knows intimately with pride and pleasure. In my dream version of America, every state has at least one Nutcracker this good.”
First Day of ‘Clara School’
This is a busy day for Jacob. Rehearsals are also underway for the Richmond Ballet’s Norfolk show; she’d been there the previous week to get that production started. Four ballet masters and mistresses are overseeing the effort, which involves Norfolk-area student performers joined by the professional company, and Jacob had told them, half as a joke, to call her if they got into a serious bind. They’ve phoned twice today already.
Ella Spruill and Lillian Crocker, both cast as Clara, have performed in previous Nutcracker productions — as a lamb and a partygoer, among other roles. But Clara is the center of everything. “It can get a little overwhelming,” Jacob says. While the girls know it’s a big deal to play Clara, Jacob tries to regulate their knowing just how big a deal it really is — otherwise, their nervousness might crowd out their focus. The part is for a youngster on the brink of adolescence, not a little girl, who is beginning to assert her personality. Auditions reveal those who can dance the part and those who can act it, and the goal is to find a performer capable of both.
What Macaulay hit upon — the confidence and passion of the company — is demonstrated when Jacob takes the Claras to the studio. She knows the buzzing eagerness of these girls, and also their desire to do well. She takes the dancers though an assemblé, a group of movements that occur in the sequence where Clara rides in a conveyance called “the poof” to greet her beloved and magical “uncle,” the flamboyant, caped Dr. Drosselmeyer. He swoops Clara off the poof and shows her the magic of the expanding tree. These maneuvers also form a variant pas de deux, or duet.
Jacob asks the girls at one point to run back to the start, and when they take off, Ella and Lillian look like frontier girls from a Winslow Homer painting dashing across a field, determined but smiling from sheer joy, elbows and knees pumping. A split second later, they stand with poise, prepared for Jacob’s next instruction. When waiting, they bounce on their feet, hands on hips, like track runners.
Jacob admonishes the Claras not to look at themselves in the mirror and directs their reaction, conveying a sense of awe and wonder as they witness the tree’s growth. She delivers the balletic language and acting coach instructions simultaneously. “Arms to your chest — I am so amazed! — Burst from our fourth position and third arabesque … eyes looking directly at the audience … front foot, back foot in arabesque.” She counts, “At fourth position, look through your arms, see Mr. Drosselmeyer, fourth — Oh, this is so great! — Step, chassé.”
Tchaikovsky’s orchestral expressions soon erupt in the studio’s stillness. “We hear this so much, and you forget,” Jacob says. “It’s just wonderful music.” When the Claras move to the familiar melodies, it seems new again.
Long Distance to Sicily
Jacob’s arrival in Richmond in 1995 was prompted by a long-distance phone call her father placed to Sicily and an unexpected series of small-world connections. While she was performing in an exhibition tour through towns on the Italian island, her father reached her from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to say that the Richmond Ballet wanted to speak with her as soon as possible.
A friend and colleague of Jacob’s, Ron Cunningham, was in Richmond choreographing the ballet Summerset for the company’s artistic director, Stoner Winslett. Cunningham knew Jacob from Fort Wayne, where he’d choreographed a duet for her and her then-husband that became the centerpiece of that ballet. Cunningham had heard that the company needed a ballet teacher for the fall and told school director Jerry Schwender about Jacob. She was then known as Judy Tevlin, her married name, though divorced from her husband and dancing partner. She rerouted her return flight from Fort Wayne to Richmond, where she taught the last four days of the summer session.
“Then Stoner took me to dinner [and] we made a deal,” Jacob recalls, and laughs. “Two weeks later I moved to Richmond.” Jacob, who grew up in suburban Detroit, previously directed a school at the Memphis Ballet, where she’d danced right out of college, and in Fort Wayne. When she came to Richmond, she began as a teacher. “It was a really great year. I had no responsibilities,” she says. “All I had to do was teach my classes and go home. Then, I guess, they figured me out.”
‘It Felt Like a Hug’
Another unexpected connection to Richmond — she’d never visited before that flight from Sicily — came through Darwin Knight, her mother’s younger brother, who was in show business. Knight and Jacob’s mother encouraged her youthful interest in ballet from age 6. Her first role was as a pixie in The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Knight worked as a dancer and choreographer. When he directed a summer stock production of the musical Carousel in Rochester, New Hampshire, he called his sister and asked if Judy might join the show. She was 13. “They needed a ‘June’ girl, and I’d been studying and dancing, and I guess he thought I was good enough.” This led to other roles — enough that, by age 16, Jacob earned her Actors Equity union card.
She performed in the Starlight Musicals summer stock programs that brought Broadway luminaries and choreographers to perform with regional talent in outdoor theaters across the country. The shows were rehearsed into production in a week; after one show closed on a Saturday evening, dress rehearsals for the next week started at midnight. “It was grueling but great,” Jacob says. She became a Kit Kat girl in a revival of Cabaret in Indianapolis starring Joel Grey reprising his original role as the master of ceremonies.
“Ron Field did the choreography; you did the choreography as it was done on Broadway, and, oh,” she squints, “it was hard, but we did it.” For the production number at the opening of the second act, Grey entered in the chorus line dressed as a woman. “He looked just as good as we did in that costume!” Jacob says with a laugh. The audience didn’t know that Grey wasn’t female until the MC’s pratfall bumped the Girl On The Right — Jacob — and the whole line tumbled like dominoes and into song.
Jacob was in a Fiddler on the Roof show with operatic baritone actor Robert Merrill and an Oliver! production featuring Sid Caesar miscast as Fagin. She recalls her divergent lifestyle: “During the year I was this ballet bun-head student, going to a regular high school and studying ballet, ballet, ballet, and every summer I was like, ‘Wow, Broadway!’” It seemed as if she might follow her uncle Darwin to the footlights. Then she went to Butler University in Indianapolis, home of a respected ballet program, and she studied in London. This became the time of such musicals as A Chorus Line, “where you had to be able to belt out songs in addition to dancing,” Jacob says. “Butler really put me back into ballet.”
Knight also had spent several years in Richmond with the former Theatre Virginia, and had received accolades for his artistic direction. When Jacob arrived in town, the ballet was operating out of the windowless former Pleasants Hardware building at Lombardy and Broad streets. The company’s repertory shows were held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ theater, where Theatre Virginia also performed.
Jacob was promoted to ballet master in 1996, working alongside Malcolm Burn. When she walked into Theatre Virginia’s green room, a huge photograph of her uncle’s production of Lock Up Your Daughters greeted her, and his partner, Tom Taylor, was in the picture. She raises her shoulders and clasps her hands, “It felt like a big hug, like I was meant to be here.”
When Jacob arrived, the dancer trainee program was in its fledgling phase. During her tenure, the trainee process has grown robust, taking applicants from around the country. Participants have joined Richmond Ballet and other renowned companies.
In a phone conversation, School of Richmond Ballet alum Philip Neal, who for 17 years was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, recalls the camaraderie of rehearsals and the “protective and nurturing energy working in Richmond.” Now a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust and Jerome Robbins Rights Trust, Neal has returned to work with Richmond Ballet as a choreographer.
“The show is glorious and wonderful,” he says, “but that studio time is magical and like nowhere else on the planet.”
The Richmond Ballet, and its school, have altered and grown since Jacob’s arrival. The move in 2000 to Canal Street raised the barre, so to speak, high above the Downtown Expressway in a refurbished former Reynolds Metals building and introduced the Studio Theater program. Jacob remembers a staff meeting where they discussed the struggle for performance dates at other venues. “We figured that we can make a little theater up there and do informal things,” she says. “Well, we’re overachievers.” The two upper studios were transformed into an intimate 250-seat performance space that is now one of the region’s best places to experience dance.
Unless it’s through a handpicked company, like the New York City Ballet, most ballet training is conducted through classes. This means young people of various body types and backgrounds enroll in the school for different reasons.
“What we try to do,” Jacob says, is that for “everybody who comes to this school, we give them the very best kind of training we can. Then they can go on, whether it’s just for their phase of life, for grace and poise, or if they grow up to become a board member or patron. I don’t ever, ever say to a student or parent, ‘No, you‘ll never be a dancer,’ because we have no way to determine that.” She bounces a fist against her chest. “It’s about what’s inside. And this is to the credit of our faculty here; we all understand that.”
The school is tuition-based, though there are scholarships and financial aid. Jacob once had a student who was living with her mother in a car, which Jacob didn’t know until near the end of the young woman’s year. The story ended well. “She was brilliant,” Jacob says of the student, who received a college scholarship, and favorable times returned for the girl’s mother. “There is stuff you don’t know,” Jacob says. “They’re all in their leotards. I do the talking; they don’t talk, unless we engage in conversation.”
Sometimes she will get an email, a call or a visit from a former student, telling her about how their lives were affected for the better. Sometimes, a bond is formed. Not long ago, Jacob saw something in a youngster among the students in Team XXL, a performance group representing Richmond Ballet’s Minds in Motion educational outreach program, and encouraged the girl to audition for The Nutcracker. Even before the student knew if she’d been cast, she came behind Jacob to hug her waist. “She got cast as an angel,” Jacob says. “That’s why I love to do this. I cannot even imagine not doing this. I love these children, I love watching them grow up, and pursuing whatever they do. They have to find their path and what their passion is. It’s really fun — most of the time.”
Dancer Ira White’s experience with Jacob started in the ballet’s Minds in Motion program during his fourth-grade year at Mary Munford Elementary School. He is now a member of Richmond Ballet II, which performs in communities around the state, and in some main company productions. “She’s very, very particular,” he says, “but in a way kids can understand. She’s tough, but nurturing.”
Though she’s been yelled at by stage mothers on occasion, Jacob also has taken parents aside to tell them about their child’s abilities. Not long ago, she informed a couple that she thought their son could be a prodigy. “They suspected,” Jacob grins. “If he gets the encouragement and direction, he might just turn into a great dancer.”
Artists, Not Robots
Katherine Smothers performed with the company for seven years, and since 1998 she has been a teacher whose role includes working with the Minds in Motion team. Smothers had what is often a typical course, from early ballet training to arriving at a Plan B that didn’t stand for “ballet” — in her case, political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. But yearning for dance, she returned to ballet.
Smothers was a dancer in the company when Jacob arrived. “She had the grace, she always had patience, and she never, ever loses that cool that she has,” Smothers says. “When you work with Nutcracker, you have hundreds of kids all over the place, and she commands just by her presence.” Smothers says Jacob also recognizes that “besides the discipline this requires, we’re creating artists, not creating robots.”
Back in 1996, Smothers was thrown into a role in String Sketches, by choreographer William Soleau, after another company member was injured. “I was getting frustrated, my partner was getting frustrated, and finally I just broke into tears,” she says. Jacob took Smothers to her office and talked her through the distress. “ ‘This is ballet, not world peace,’ she told me,” Smothers says with a slight laugh. “ ‘We’re going to get through this, together.’ And after that, I went back out and it was one of those days when I had a breakthrough. As a teacher, she’s able — because she’s Judy, with her way — to pull from you what you didn’t think yourself capable of.”
‘Happy to Be Here’
One late afternoon in an upper studio, Jacob teaches with accompaniment provided by pianist Jim Smithson, who’s done this at the ballet for 37 years.
“This is the top level of our middle division,” Jacob says, introducing the black-leotard-clad class to a visitor. These classes meet six hours a week, spread across three days; in addition, the students take Saturday performance ensemble classes in jazz, modern and character dance. “They perform whenever they get the chance,” Jacob says.
In the studio are a former Clara, Natalie St. John, and near-future Clara, Spruill. Jacob patrols the aisle between barres like an inspecting sergeant, arms folded behind her and hands grasping her wrists. Most of the students are accustomed to the scrutiny; some of them have been under Jacob’s tutelage since age 6, or younger.
“Nice and tall, mind your abs,” she instructs. “Use your metatarsals. Don’t let your belly button face the floor. Look intelligent, engaged and pleasant.”
She is physically petite, but carries herself taller, and exudes an energy that makes her seem still greater in stature. The face of concentration morphs into a smile and recognition as she offers instruction, correction and encouragement, often simultaneously. “Watch your shoulders — make an oval with our arms, not pointy elbows. Happy happy happy — not like that song.” And the girls allow some giggling, even though straight up at the barre, in position and tummies tight. Given the opportunity, however, they could give Pharrell Williams’ omnipresent tune a balletic interpretation.
This is a warm-up, not even a rehearsal, but there is a beauty in the studio basked in golden autumn light, as if these dancers could sprout wings and join the swooping squadron of birds darting past the Federal Reserve building. Such is the illusion created by years of muscle training and dedication. But these are real bodies that sometimes hurt.
Jacob notices one student putting more weight on one leg than the other. She asks the dancer if she’s in pain, but the student dismisses minor distress. Jacob nods and says, “Oh, ‘It’s OK, Miss Jacob, I have this bone sticking out of my ankle,’ ” knowing well that ballet dancers will work when they’re hurt and worsen injuries. The facetious observation prompts some laughs. The dancer raises her leg to the barre and Jacob closes in on the problem. She recommends that the student wrap something around the barre on which to rest her ankle. A sweatshirt suffices. “I’m glad we had this conversation,” Jacob says, arms akimbo and nodding. This causes a little more laughter.
As the class continues, Jacob paces and watches. “Show a little teeth — not a grin,” she instructs. “When we concentrate too hard, we clench our jaws.” She over-dramatizes a grimace. “Instead, we need the ‘Happy to Be Here’ face.” The girls do this, and it’s as if the light rises in the room, or a cloud passes beyond the sun. They do indeed appear joyful to be here, in this room, with Judy Jacob.
Richmond Ballet’s professional company, with students from the School of Richmond Ballet, will perform The Nutcracker at the Richmond CenterStage’s Carpenter Theatre from Dec. 19 to 28. 344-0906, ext. 224, or richmondballet.com.