On a recent frigid and blustery night in Moscow, the Bolshoi Ballet's Joy Womack was talking about her farewell visit last summer with influential Los Angeles teacher Yvonne Mounsey.
Womack had traveled to Mounsey's West Los Angeles home in August because her former teacher was dying of cancer. The co-founder of the Westside School of Ballet — one of Southern California's most prominent ballet schools — shared memories about her storied career with New York City Ballet and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and then made a special request of Womack.
"She said she would love to see me do Sugar Plum Fairy [in 'The Nutcracker']. She said it would mean a lot to her but that she knew she was not going to be there," said Womack, 18, by phone. She is the first American woman ever invited into Russia's historic ballet company.
"I had to do it. Without her influence and example, I wouldn't be there today. I'm a little nervous and excited. I feel the pressure. A normal guest artist, they do the 'Nutcracker' to make money, but those thoughts are so far from my mind."
Womack will keep her promise to Mounsey, who died in late September. She and Los Angeles ballerina Erin Rivera-Brennand will alternate as Sugar Plum Fairy in Westside's "Nutcracker" performances Dec. 7 through 9. It will be Womack's first time as a guest artist, she said.
If trends continue, however, it will certainly be the first of many. Performances of the two-act holiday classic, which premiered in 1892, begin in earnest next weekend here, and across the country. But it's no easy task to mount. There are roles for as many as 100 dancers in the traditional version by choreographer Lev Ivanov. Those parts are usually double or triple cast, but the ballet can strain resources, especially for a dance school.
Enter the guest artist. It has become a "Nutcracker" tradition — one of many — to hire elite dancers to perform in the ballet's leading roles and even for character parts, such as the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer and the leaping acrobats of the Russian variation. Less conventional artists even make cameos: LA Weekly dance writer Ann Haskins has performed Mother Ginger with Los Angeles Ballet for several years, and Carolyn Brewer, wife of Torrance Councilman Tom Brewer, will be the grandmother in South Bay Ballet's production this year.
But current and former members of American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and the Royal Ballet will be on stage over the next month in Southern California. In some instances, artists who don't normally perform together are paired — such as Pacific Northwest's Carla Körbes and the Joffrey's Fabrice Calmels — giving even "Nutcracker"-weary adults an excuse to buy tickets.
For the dancers, the reasons for being a guest artist are obvious — extra performing opportunities and additional income. There is also the less tangible ability to motivate and excite a stage full of youngsters who are often agog at sharing the stage with them.
Inspiration is a key reason that Salwa Rizkalla is bringing in three sets of leads on successive weekends for her Orange County-based school and company, Festival Ballet Theatre. (Körbes and Calmels are one of the couples.) It costs thousands of dollars in dancer fees, airfare and hotel accommodations. But Rizkalla said it is worth it.
"I feel like it's very valuable to everybody, in all aspects," she said. "When the younger kids see those professional dancers, they get inspired, and it raises the production itself. It's almost their dream come true to be close to a great artist. And the artists are so kind. They learn to be ambassadors for their company."
This will be the seventh year that Irina Dvorovenko and her husband, Max Beloserkovsky, both principals with ABT, have performed with Festival Ballet and they have forged a bond with Rizkalla's students, who visit with Dvorovenko when they go to New York City.
"They just don't come to [do 'Nutcracker'] to make the money. They don't. Really. They enjoy performing and because it's their life," she added.
Scott Schlexer, a manager for musicians and dancers, including Marcelo Gomes and Sascha Radetsky, agreed, saying that his clients are eager to perform as much as possible, even in a school production. Schlexer said guesting gigs are arranged many months in advance.
"If a company comes to me in August about a 'Nutcracker' at the end of November, it's often too late. The dancers are booked up pretty quickly," he said. Radetsky will also perform with Festival Ballet and then head to San Diego and Bellevue, Wash.
Antonio Lopez, a star with San Francisco Ballet from 1975 to 1989, will be Dr. Drosselmeyer again with Westside Ballet (where he teaches), and then will join Pasadena Dance Theatre to portray the flamboyant and oversized Mother Ginger. He said he feels a great responsibility as a guest artist, because he remembers the effect that professional dancers had on him when he was a student.
"I try to interact with the kids. Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco, I had some really good role models, and they made me enjoy ballet. You want them to experience the ballet in a productive, professional and fun way."
Joy Womack said she is acutely aware that young girls look up to her; she already receives Facebook messages from Westside students. She too remembers the thrill she felt when older girls encouraged her.
"That's first and foremost, especially in this tradition. One word can be the difference in a young dancer's mind."
Where: Westside Ballet at Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood
When: 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 7; 1 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 8 and 9
Information: (310) 828-2018 or westsideballet.com
Where: Fesitval Ballet Theatre at Irvine Barclay Theatre
When: Dec. 14 through 24, schedule varies
Information: (714) 309-1280 or festivalballet.org