Dancer Jessica Cohen’s work visa was denied. It was August when she discovered she wouldn’t be able to return to England, where she had danced in Northern Ballet’s company. It gave her three months to find a new job.
The 21-year-old had heard of Sarasota Ballet. She had heard of its artistic director, Brit Iain Webb, and The Sir Frederick Ashton repertoire. She had heard that it was a company like herself: American under English influence. (Perhaps she had read this in one of the three New York Times articles about Sarasota Ballet in the past year).
Fortunately, Sarasota Ballet had an unpublicized availability. So, Cohen carried-on her pointe shoes and flew to Sarasota to take the company’s daily class.
“In my heart, I thought, ‘This has to be it,’” she says.
And it was — the ballet immediately offered her a contract. Cohen joined the company for the 2013-2014 season.
The timing was perfect. With Sara Sardelli’s switch from principal dancer to outreach coordinator following last season, the ballet was Clara-less for its “John Ringling Circus Nutcracker” production. Sardelli set the bar high: She added an innocent curiosity and enchantment to the debut role in the circus-themed original production that parallels the life of John Ringling with the traditional story of “The Nutcracker.” The directors quickly learned Cohen is perfect for the role of the little girl who runs away to a circus town.
Like with most dancers, “The Nutcracker” is a holiday tradition for Cohen. Every year since she was 4, she’d put on her formal black velvet and gold dress — while it still fit, of course. Then, she and her female cousins would pile in Grandma Mitzi’s gold Lexus and head across the Golden Gate Bridge, where they’d have a pre-ballet tea party at the Neiman Marcus building near The War Memorial Opera House. She says the gold ornamentation and holiday décor surrounding the stage at the opera house always enchanted her.
She promised her grandmother that one day she’d dance on the stage with the San Francisco Ballet Company.
She started small. Her earliest memory performing was at age 7 when she danced as the angel in her local studio, Marin Ballet School’s, “The Nutcracker.” She also danced as the mouse and the black sheep in later performances. As a teenager, Cohen decided she wanted to be a ballerina. In 2007 she joined the San Francisco Ballet School.
Cohen is well-spoken and charming when she explains her career started much like the students of the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory — she’d do independent study in the morning and train the second half of the day.
Her first year there, she was chosen as Clara in the San Francisco Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” That Christmas, instead of a black velour and gold-skirted princess dress, she wore Clara’s nightgown and danced across the stage with the company of San Francisco Ballet — just like she promised.
“That was the defining moment for me,” she says. “That’s when I decided I had to give everything to become a ballet dancer; it was the most incredible and empowering experience being on that stage.”
She ended up playing Clara at Northern Ballet, too — the role has followed her during her career. Even so, Cohen was surprised to learn she’d be given the opportunity again in Sarasota.
“Iain Webb and Ms. Barbieri were really open in sharing their vision with me for the company. They seemed very passionate about nurturing dancers and giving them opportunities,” she says. “I’m so grateful.”
In fact, she uses the word gratitude and grateful a handful of times in a genuine outpouring of thankfulness for Sarasota Ballet, its directors and its dancers.
She’s excited for opening night.
Sarasota’s version is a completely different take on the classic. She’s enjoyed learning the role and building her character using pantomime. Although there is no speaking in the ballet, Cohen creates narratives in her head about what’s taking place on stage to bring her character to life. The circus element is new and exciting.
“I do feel the wonder and imagination and all the laughter,” Cohen says. “It feels really real with the way the story has been created.”
IF YOU GO
‘John Ringling Circus Nutcracker’
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20 and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: Tickets $15 to $100
Info: Call 359-0099, Ext. 101
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