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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, December 21, 2000

Ballet star Selya
preps for all-star
‘Nutcracker’ gig

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

It's a pop culture cliche that has become the plot of at least one recent movie: A young man is drawn to a career in dance only to be scorned as unmanly by those around him. Award-winning ballet dancer John Selya was 10 when he decided ballet was what he wanted to do. He says it wasn't like that for him.

"I grew up in New York City and there's almost a different set of rules there. I liked ballet from the beginning because it was very physical and it was good for my sports. I was playing soccer. My friends and I all played sports and we were all very normal kids. There was never any jeering (about taking ballet lessons) or anything like that."

It was only when Selya became a professional and compared his experiences with those of dancers from other parts of the country that he realized how lucky he'd been to grow up 20 blocks away from New York's School of American Ballet.

"A lot of people weren't lucky enough to have that kind of atmosphere. I learned about the obstacles that other boys went through choosing to dance in a small town and my hat goes off to them."

Selya is in Honolulu this weekend to present new interpretations of the Snow King and Arabian Coffee in Ballet Hawaii's annual production of "Nutcracker". He describes the production as the equivalent of an all-star game with dancers from different companies working together.

"It's great to work with people that we don't work with most of the time and Ballet Hawaii is getting a great mix. They're getting people from (New York) City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre as well as some local talent. It's nice to see how people who have trained differently and work in different places come together and combine in a relatively short time to put on a great show."

"There are two principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre -- the American-born Ashley Tuttle and the Spanish dynamo Angel Corella. He is definitely a phenomenon. Jennifer Chipman is a nice contrast because she is so expansive in her movements and has a much more Balanchine style than the other dancers."

This will be Selya's fourth appearance in "Nutcracker" here. He says that makes the show particularly challenging for him.

"When you're hired as a guest artist, you want to exceed the expectations. Each year I want to build and add on to what they saw last year."

Selya particularly enjoys performing here because it allows him to spend his off-stage time pursuing his other passion, surfing. He started off bodyboarding summers in New Jersey when he was still a kid. Standing on his body board was the next step. He then "graduated to a long boards and got into smaller boards after that."

Ocean sports were pretty much shelved while he was training for the ballet. "I really had no time and the last thing I wanted to do in my time off was something physical," he said, but these days he surfs whenever he gets the chance.

"Not many people in ballet do it, and I've tried to spread the good word, but to be a successful dancer doesn't leave you much leisure time to watch the weather and get on it when it's good.

"When I come here I hesitate to call myself a surfer. I'll surf the biggest waves on the East Coast and really charge and then come out here and see the waves and it's a little humbling. The local surfers who can actually handle the big days out there are like superheroes. The North Shore surfers are also very hospitable. It's a great vibe."

Selya also likes not having to worry about "thawing out" after getting out of the water.

Another plus about the weather, he says it takes about half as much time to warm up for a performance here.

Looking beyond the enduring popularity of "Nutcracker" as holiday entertainment, Selya sees ballet as an endangered art form despite what he describes as the "ballet boom" of the '80s.

"You experience a boom (of interest) like that and then see the downside with great institutions just struggling to stay alive," he said. "I think it's discouraging to a lot of aspiring dancers who don't know if the company they join is going to last another six months because of the lack of government support. You rely mostly on private benefactors and there are only so many of those people who have the passion to keep an art form alive."

And so although he frankly assesses the story line of the recent ballet drama "Center Stage" as "very formulaic," he applauds the movie.

"I think the dancers did a tremendous job. They're not trained actors and I think they did a tremendous job of acting and dancing and they did the best they could with what they were given.

"The important thing is that (the movie) got dance out into the mainstream to try to permeate mainstream culture and reignite the ballet boom of the '80s."

And what about Hawaii's role? Selya says that New York is "the hub" but that ballet is certainly alive here.

"New York is the place if you want to dance, but the local talent (in Hawaii) is great. There are a lot of girls that are doing variations that are really top notch and it's great to see. You're in the middle of the Pacific excelling in an art form that's based in Europe. It's great to see that the level is so high here."

On stage

Bullet What: "Nutcracker," presented by Ballet Hawaii
Bullet When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
Bullet Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Bullet Tickets: $15 to $45
Bullet Call: 526-4400

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