Westside Ballet founder big absence in Nutcracker production

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An instructor gets her student ready for a Nutcracker rehearsal at Westside Ballet in Santa Monica, Calif. This year the show went on despite the absence of the school's founder, Yvonne Mounsey.

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Toy soliders lay defeated in The Westside Ballet's rehearsal of the Nutcracker. Yvonne Mounsey, the founder of the school, died in September, just weeks before the starting audition for the annual performance.

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Students practice the Spanish dance at the Westside Ballet's rehearsal of the Nutcracker in Santa Monica, Calif.

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Allegra Clegg, left, is Westside Ballet's Executive director and Yvonne Mounsey's daughter. Clegg says she hears the voice of her mother all the time when she's going through rehearsals.

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The prince practices his choreography at the Westside Ballet in Santa Monica, Calif.

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From left to right, Skye Wight, Talia Marks and Micaela Larkin put on their candy cane costumes at the Westside Ballet Nutcracker rehearsal.

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Mae Ryan/KPCC

Students dress as rats for their rehearsal of the Nutcracker at Westside Ballet in Santa Monica, Calif. Until recently, the school was run by Yvonne Mounsey, who was the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in the 1950s.

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Students practice at the Westside Ballet, which was founded more than 40 years ago by Yvonne Mounsey.

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Students at the Westside Ballet wait their turn for rehearsals for their upcoming show at the L.A. Wadsworth Theater.

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Rachel DeAngelis plays an angel and a party boy in the Westside Ballet's Nutcracker.

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Joy Womack plays the sugar plum fairy in this season's Nutcracker. Womack is the first American ballerina who has ever been hired by the Russia's Bolshoi Ballet and decided to come back to the states to honor Yvonne Mounsey.

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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