Westside Ballet founder big absence in Nutcracker production

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Dancers with the Westside Ballet have pirouetted on local stages for nearly four decades. The Santa Monica-based school says its Nutcracker production is the oldest in  Southern California. This year’s show at L.A.’s Wadsworth Theater went on despite the absence of the school’s founder, Yvonne Mounsey.

The South African-born ballerina was 93 years old when she died in September, just weeks after starting auditions for the annual performance.

During a rehearsal at the school's studios, the teenage ballerinas she helped to select rhythmically pounded their toes on the hardwood floor.

Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said Mounsey was an inspiration to his 14 year old daughter Nova.

“Yvonne would be right out there front and center and she’d be giving direction and inspiring the kids as she did. When we first joined, we would watch Yvonne and marvel at how this woman who was advanced in age would be so young and so youthful and was there until the very end inspiring the kids. It’ll be hard for all of them, I’m sure,” he said.

At the height of her career in the 1950s, she was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. She studied under the celebrated dancer and choreographer George Ballanchine.

Allegra Clegg is Westside Ballet’s executive director - and Mounsey’s daughter.

“I hear her voice all the time, and I hear her saying things like, ‘Oh don’t do that, you must smile, you must look out at the audience.’  You must present yourself well and put a good foot forward in that sense of you perform your best and try your hardest,” Clegg said.

Joy Womack danced the role of the sugar plum fairy in this season’s production. She grew up dancing in the Westside Ballet. But she didn’t stop there. At 18 years old, she’s the first American ballerina Russia's Bolshoi Ballet has hired. Womack said she came back to dance the ballet’s starring role because she wanted to honor what she'd learned from Mounsey.

“My only goal is if one girl gets inspired to pursue this as a professional career, my job here would be done. If anyone who’s coming to see the Nutcracker for the first time, if they can get to fall in love with dance as much as I am, then it’s worth all the blood, sweat, and tears,” she said.

It worked. Her presence set the studio abuzz.

Well, at first everyone’s like, ‘Joy’s here, Joy’s here.’ I’m like, 'oh.' So I walk out and I’m like, ‘I don’t see her,’” said 14 year-old dancer Nova Jesswein, who wants to follow in Womacks footsteps, “and then we finally see her and we’re silent and we giggle, and it’s really funny.

The rehearsals go on without Mounsey. But if you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of her stage directions off the studio’s mirrors and hardwood floors.

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