Once again, American Ballet Theatre’s sleigh has landed at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts and has unloaded a fantastic cast of dancers for their annual The Nutcracker show. Now in its third iteration, ABT’s current take on the all-time holiday classic is a brilliantly orchestrated theatrical piece that bends the rules of the original. Its presentation requires a large array of principal dancers, among which is Christine Shevchenko — a rising prima whose love of classical ballet has not deterred her from embracing and incorporating alternative styles of expression into her technique.
Hailing from Odessa, Ukraine, Shevchenko was born into a family of performers. Her father was a well-known gymnast in their home country, and her mother was a dancer and an actor. At around the age of 4, Shevchenko’s parents enrolled her in a variety of sporty and athletic classes, hoping to help her discover her forte. An emphasis was initially placed on gymnastics, thanks to her father’s professional connections. They surprisingly eventually gave way to her discovery of classical ballet.
“I ended up in a reserve school for Olympic athletes, so it was pretty intense training,” says Shevchenko. “Ballet classes were required with the sport. We would all have to take an hour of gymnastic classes a day because it’s the foundation of all things. It was my first introduction to the ballet world.”
Early on, Shevchenko’s family was told she had the makings of a professional, with her strong adaptation of the technique and prominent skills in coordination. However, it wasn’t until she and her family moved to the United States when she was 8 years old that ballet took front and center in her life.
“I made the decision to go into ballet because it was something I was familiar with and enjoyed, and [so] started to do ballet full time,” says Shevchenko.
More than familiarity, it allowed her to embrace the magical roles she saw prima ballerinas perform in masterpieces such as Giselle and Swan Lake. She was immediately enchanted by the first production she saw performed live on stage, the memory of which has stuck with her ever since.
“My first ballet was Sleeping Beauty,” says Shevchenko. “My mom had a friend that was a ballerina. She brought us backstage and I stood and watched for three hours straight. I was so hypnotized and in awe by all the costumes and the music and the set. It was like a fairy tale coming to life for a little child! Already I had a passion for it, but it wasn’t till later, till I was about 9 or 10, that I decided that this is what I really wanted to do.”
Shevchenko trained for nine years at the Pennsylvania Rock School for Dance Education (then known as the Rock School of Pennsylvania Ballet) under the direction of Bo and Stephanie Spassoff. There she solidified the first steps of her career. She danced the children’s lead (Marie, rather than Clara) in Pennsylvania Ballet’s The Nutcracker for three years straight and was featured in the NBC special Degas and the Dance. Then in 2003 at age 15, became the youngest ever recipient of the Princess Grace Award, an accomplishment which earned her even more support from Rock School and further fueled her competitive streak and nature.
From that point on, the awards kept rolling in. Two thousand and five saw her win the Gold Medal and Title of Laureate at the Moscow International Ballet Competition. In 2006, Shevchenko secured a spot in American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company (the same year ABT was declared America’s National Ballet Company by an act of Congress) and scored a Bronze Medal in the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.
Shevchenko’s success led her to formally join ABT as an apprentice in 2007 and become a member of the corps de ballet in 2008. In 2010 she won the Margaret Moore Dance Award, and in 2015 received the Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship. ABT named her a Principal Dancer in 2017.
Although much of her career has been dedicated to classical ballet, Shevchenko has trained in everything from modern to contemporary, and has even taken ballroom lessons. Though important for competitions, the skills she learned from these diverse dance forms has expanded her career exponentially and allowed her to fully embrace her current role as an adult Princess Clara in ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker (world premiere 2010), now playing at the Segerstrom.
“The contemporary training teaches you how to use your body more freely,” says Sevchenko. “It helps you to let go and not be so tense, so there’s a freedom in your movements.”
Although very much grounded in classical ballet, Ratmansky’s work explores a duality many of today’s Nutcrackers don’t — it’s a comedy that still manages to openly acknowledge the slightly melancholic side of growing up. Many humorous productions often hold an unfortunate disconnect between the ballet’s funnier characters and the more strait-laced lead dancers who perform the celebrated pas de deux and follow-up solos, whatever their titles may be (usually the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, but not in this show!). Ratmansky however demands that the acting and elaborate facial language continue all throughout. Though his choreographed leads are not funny per se, they do use their looks to express the vulnerability associated with welcoming adulthood and kissing childhood goodbye in the process. The result is a better fit to Tchaikovsky’s slightly melodramatic pas de deux score, and a complexity that challenges the leads to do as well with their faces as they are expected to do with the rest of their bodies. It is a role someone like Shevchenko, who has performed as many well-known classical leads (Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote), has been happy to take on.
“When I first started rehearsing it, my approach to it was dancing it elegant and grand, but then I realized that I’m basically supposed to be a little girl,” says Shevchenko. “I ended up having a little more fun with it…[being] more carefree, more like a child in a way. I’m used to performing a different version of Sugar Plum. You’re supposed to be more mature. Here it’s different. It’s very touching and very tender. I really enjoy this role a lot more than the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy. There’s a lot more to work with and more things you can explore within the character.”
2019 marks Shevchenko’s second year in the role with partner Thomas Forster. Though ABT’s cast only has five days to rehearse before heading over to California, the ballerina says she feels a different sort of ease settling into the role and a new energy she is eager to bring with her to the West Coast stage.
The busy Shevchenko keeps busy between ballet seasons by offering young artists master classes, guesting in other ballet companies, choreographing works for feature films, and working with philanthropic organizations dedicated to the global water crisis, and helping children and animals. International notoriety and interest in fashion have also led her to be featured in publications such as ELLE Russia, VOGUE Italia, and most recently The Style of Movement: Fashion & Dance — Ken Browar and Deborah Ory’s photography book featuring over 80 of today’s biggest dancers captured mid-movement and dressed by some of the fashion world’s most famous designers.
Shevchenko has one more performance left in this season’s Nutcracker. In 2020 she will star in Twyla Tharp’s Grand Pas: Rhythm of the Saints. In a return to her love for classical ballet, she also looks forward to performing in Swan Lake, with Forster as her partner, and for the first time in her career, Giselle as the titular role. Much like her embodiment of Clara’s wish to see herself as an adult in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, the latter is a dream come true.
Catch her this Sunday, December 22, in ABT’s matinee performance at the Segerstrom before 2019’s The Nutcracker season comes to an end.
Written by Lara J. Altunian for LA Dance Chronicle, December 21, 2019.
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Featured image: Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster in ABT’s The Nutcracker – Photo by Doug Gifford