One would never suspect that the black and chrome Harley-Davidson Softail Deuce parked in front of California DanceArts in La Cañada belonged to the composer of a new ballet. And when Dwight Bernard Mikkelsen walks into a rehearsal with long hair, tattoos, an earring, jeans, leather boots and a denim vest covered with patches, he looks oddly out of place among the leotard clad, leggy ballerinas.
The school’s resident company, California Contemporary Ballet, and its artistic director Aerin Holt enlisted Mikkelsen to compose this ballet that debuted in June 2013. The story of Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen was one of Holt’s favorite fairy tales.
“I have always dreamed of creating a ballet from the story,” said Holt. Since its sold-out premier in 2013, the company has been buzzing about whether the ballet would be seen again. But after the show’s success last spring and constant requests for the ballet to return, Holt was persuaded to present it for a second time this month.
For Mikkelsen, a professional composer for films and many classical artists, creating the musical score for “Thumbelina” required his creative energies for five months. He composed the music for a fairly traditional orchestra – nine woodwinds, 11 brass, three percussionists, timpani, two harps and a large string section.
“Of all possible venues, ballet is my preference,” said Mikkelsen. “And working with Aerin makes it even more delightful. Her realizations are always surprising, yet when I look back, they appear inevitable and perfect. Then there are the CCB dancers! My, oh my! They are, one for one, light, lithe, strong and committed, and their characters are always wholly convincing.”
Jaclyn Stryker of La Crescenta is returning to the starring role as the tiny fairy, Thumbelina. Stryker, a professional dancer who has enjoyed roles with companies locally and in San Francisco, honed her technical skills as Holt’s gifted dance student. Stryker is now one of California Contemporary Ballet’s leading performers. She will be on stage throughout the entire ballet, as she encounters both friend and foe, based on the story’s characters.
Stryker will face a toad that steals her away to a swamp, and a swarm of nasty beetles. She meets a matchmaking mouse, performed by Julia Houser, a La Cañada resident and graduating senior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Stryker also meets a spider that performs high in the air on an aerial net, performed by professional dancer Alyssa Thompson from Canyon Country.
Finally, she will dance with a swallow performed by Kelinda White that whisks her through the air to a handsome prince, performed by Nicholas Zerman.
The ballet begins with a witch, performed by Tina Yedgarian, and ends with the Vale of the Fairies created by collaborating choreographer Lynn Bryson Pittenger.
As a young dancer, Pittenger was personally selected by George Balanchine to join the ranks of New York City Ballet where her professional career began. Pittenger clearly helps to deliver the final message of the ballet where soloist ballerinas, dubbed the “Fairies of Good Character,” represent the qualities that Thumbelina calls upon from within as she is forced to confront and ward off adversity. By doing so, Thumbelina earns her acceptance into the fairy kingdom.
Throughout the ballet, Mikkelsen’s music creates themes for each character. “He is brilliant at expressing the emotion required for ballet characters,” said Holt. “What I attempt to do with movement, he does with music to help the dancers create their roles.”
In addition to the music, choreography and characters, the ballet features large sets created to maintain a tiny fairy-like perspective. This includes 12-foot-high flowers, five-foot-high toadstools, and the large tulip from which Thumbelina is born. The tulip operates by means of a hydraulic system, enabling its petals to open at the appropriate moment. These large sets were offered as a donation, giving Holt the impetus needed to go forward with her production and demonstrating that a tiny fairy can make a big show.
“Thumbelina” by California Contemporary Ballet premieres at Glendale Community College (1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale) on June 27 at 7:30 p.m., on June 28 at 2 p.m. and June 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$30 at www.CalBallet.com. Group ticket prices are also available. Call (818) 583-7406.