The Columbus Ballet hired Jenifer Sarver to serve as their new Artistic Director this year. Sarver assumes a new position with dual roles as Artistic Director of the Columbus Ballet and Master Teacher of the CSU Youth Dance Conservatory. This means that in addition to teaching numerous classes a week at the Rankin and for CSU, Sarver is in charge of artistic direction of this year's production of "The Nutcracker." Her interpretation? A production based on Eastern European productions that have spanned the decades.
With over 140 dancers and performers this year, The Nutcracker has expanded considerably. The all-star cast includes professional dancers and students from The Columbus Ballet, a professional orchestra under the direction of Maestro Paul Hostetter, and the 40-voice Bella Voce ensemble of the Voices of the Valley.
We sat down with Sarver to learn more about her background, what excited her about The Columbus Ballet, and what we can expect from the organization's 22nd annual performance of The Nutcracker.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All photos courtesy of The Columbus Ballet.
Q: How did you get your start in ballet?
A: I was in Kindergarten and my grandmother sent me a VHS tape of The Nutcracker starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. My mom put it on one afternoon and I absolutely loved it. I ran the tape out. I would dance along with it, and I wanted to be Clara. At the time, I wasn't actually taking ballet yet. It was more of something I did at home - danced The Nutcracker in my living room. (laughing)
My family was military, so we moved around a lot. Eventually, my parents realized I should take some ballet classes. I got very serious about it while we lived in New Orleans. I studied with Harvey Hysell. He built a studio there and I studied there for many years. It was all Cecchetti training, which is a fantastic way of developing the lower body. It made me very, very strong technically. It is not a great way of developing upper body and fluidity in dancing, so that was something I worked on later.
From there, I went to Houston Ballet Academy to finish my ballet training. That was when Ben Stevenson was there. He has since moved to Fort Worth.
After finishing at Houston Ballet Academy, I went to Butler University and got a B.A. in Dance Pedagogy. Then, I danced in Europe for most of my career. I was a soloist with the National Ballet of Poland and a soloist at Cork City Ballet in Ireland. I also danced with Slovenia National Ballet and then another state company in Poland.
I returned to get my MFA in Studio-Based Research from the University of Utah. At that time it was the Department of Ballet, but now it's become the School of Dance. I went into teaching at the collegiate level in a one year visiting position in Alma College in Michigan. Then, I was hired as an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University about an hour outside of Boston. And now, I'm here and very happy to be here!
Q: What made you interested in coming to Columbus?
A: I actually saw the advertisement, and when I read the job description I knew it was meant to be. What got me interested was the way that the description read. It was obvious that this ballet company and the board knew exactly what they wanted. They valued ballet so deeply and they wanted someone that would value the program in that way. They wanted someone to do Nutcracker and other productions that I love. I knew I could do that. More than anything though, they wanted someone to come who would develop serious young dancers, but also had room and a place for young dancers who loved it but maybe didn't have any professional goals with ballet longterm. I also loved that concept about this ballet company. It can be a very hard thing to do - to find the right balance between those two things, but it's something I'm really committed to doing. I really think that ballet that is something that can be for everyone. Students can enjoy ballet at every level, or they can enjoy it at a higher level. It just depends on who you are and what you want out of your experience.
I got the sense that there was all of that attitude here. I was really thrilled to get the interview call, and really enjoyed speaking with everyone. Then, I came down and was so amazed by the environment and the people in Columbus. I felt so very welcomed, and it was a lovely place to walk into.
When I taught a class, I found that everything I had sort of expected was true was in fact, very true. The students were so respectful, and so serious and dedicated to the art form. They wanted to grow and develop and I admired that so much. Then, I walked into the RiverCenter and was ready to cry. I almost fell out. I have danced all over the world, and it's one of the most beautiful theaters I've ever seen. Giving these students the opportunity to perform there is so important. It's a phenomenal place for our students to get to perform.
I was blown away by Columbus, and the cultural scene here. There is everything here that a big city has, except the big city.
Q: Tell me about your MFA in Studio-Based Research. What does that mean and how has it equipped you to do your job?
A: My academic side is that I do a lot of history of ballet research. My two focal points were looking at the EnglishBallet during World War II, and also studying a ballerina called Olga Spessivtseva. She was one of the best dancers of the 20th century, and danced with Diaghilev.
I spent a lot of time giving attention to developing my own pedagogical skills as a teacher. It's one thing to dance, and another thing to teach. It's wonderful to be able to do both well, and was very important to me to develop those skills as much as possible. You have to care to teach. You have to really be able to break down the craft into the smallest pieces to build technique that lasts. I always say that teaching the littlest ones is the hardest work, because you have to break it down to the most finite skills and then make it interesting enough for them to enjoy.
Q: There is an enormous focus with the Columbus Ballet to develop a ballet company and work in tandem with CSU. Why are you excited to enter into such an interesting relationship?
A: Dacne and academia are an interesting marriage. It sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't. To make it work well, you have to focus on what the students need. It has to remain central. That was the vibe that I got from both CSU and Columbus Ballet. We want to make the best situation we can for our students. One of the best ways to do that is by creating this position. Creating a position that is very stable and attractive for people to come in and stay knowing their job is to make the Columbus Ballet as fantastic as they can for both our students and the community. The investment in both organizations says so much about why things will work. They are already working. I was really impressed with everything I saw when I taught my initial class. The students here know how to take correction and how much is already setup. It's a very well-working machine that only wanted to go up from there. And that's something I really want to be a part of.
Q: Let's discuss the partnership with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. It's important for people to know that Columbus Ballet collaborates with a live orchestra. Is the idea that you have a symphony ready and willing to collaborate exciting to you? My research tells me that it is a rare thing. Is that true?
A: It's extremely rare, and it was one of the things that made this position so attractive. Two of the things that I have pushed for in previous positions in education have been quality costuming and live music for performances. It's important to have quality costumes because you need the experience of the weight of them. It's different, and I'm so glad to know that Columbus Ballet understands and provides the highest quality of costumes possible for their students. We have a fantastic costumer who I am so excited to be working with.
Performing with a live orchestra is essential to the experience of our dancers as well. A live orchestra is a different experience than a recording. Without the experience of dancing with live music, it can very difficult for students to go on to dance professionally. It's just an absolute must for giving our students the best experience we can. Ballet should not be off on its own. It should exist in tandem and constantly be in collaboration with other artists. Having that live orchestra is crucial for collaborative art. There is a huge difference for the audience as well. Live music just makes the entire experience that much better all the way around.
Last, it teaches everyone involved what it is like to work as an artist. Live music will not be the exact same every time, and neither will our dancers. It's an important lesson to rehearse and perform with as many artists as possible in collaboration.
Q: Last question. What are you most looking forward to about The Nutcracker this year?
A: I am delighted that Nutcracker week is finally here! I am so proud of every single cast member and cannot wait for my lifelong dream to come true: creating my own version of this most beautiful ballet in an exquisite theater full of family and friends.
If You Go:
What: Columbus Ballet's 22nd annual production of The Nutcracker
Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Heard Theatre
When: December 8 at 7:30 p.m. and December 9 at 2:30 p.m.