During a recent dress rehearsal for Westside Ballet's 39th annual production of "The Nutcracker," Yvonne Mounsey sat in a director's chair and looked visibly unhappy as some 30 mostly pre-adolescent dancers practiced the group formations, line dances and interactive crowd moments of the ballet's party scene. "You've got to make a proper circle! You've got to watch each other! You over there … you can't giggle!"
"I'm not in a good mood today," she then said to an observer. A few minutes later, much of the cast sat in a precise circle, each member assiduously playing with a designated toy and Mounsey pronounced the magic words: "That was much better."
Then she took a break and shared her No. 1 lesson learned from nearly four decades of staging the ubiquitous December ballet with pre-professional dancers. "Everything counts. So it's about rehearsing it well and not letting any little thing go. That's what makes a 'Nutcracker' good or not good."
At 92, the willowy and strawberry-blond Mounsey remains firmly in charge of the Santa Monica-based Westside School of Ballet and pre-professional Westside Ballet, both of which she co-founded in 1967.
And from September to December, the former New York City Ballet dancer has her hands full with the challenge of staging a traditional "Nutcracker" that can hold its own with the annual cornucopia of professional and community "Nutcracker" productions in Los Angeles, while effectively utilizing the varied talents of some 100 students enrolled in the school's programs. This includes having the final say in just about every "Nutcracker" moment, though she graciously concedes that the school's other ballet teachers, many of them her former students, do about "90% of the work."
"The Nutcracker" is in Mounsey's DNA. In 1954, she appeared as the Center Spanish Girl in the premiere of George Balanchine's "Nutcracker" for New York City Ballet. Balanchine had recruited her to join his then-fledgling company in 1949, and she danced as a soloist and principal for NYCB before retiring in 1958. Before joining NYCB, she had danced for both the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Colonel W. de Basil's Original Ballet Russe.
"Yvonne is the queen and we always defer to her," says Francine Kessler Lavac, a veteran Westside Ballet teacher whose dance career included performing with Mikhail Baryshnikov and as a soloist for the Utah-based Ballet West. "And we all do it gladly because she's brilliant, and in a ballet school or company, someone has to be the boss, otherwise things lose their cohesiveness."
Indeed, the some half-dozen teachers who took turns helping Mounsey direct the recent dress rehearsal often told their students to "watch how Yvonne does it." And Mounsey seemed more than happy to get out of her chair and demonstrate.
"Like this," she told the boy playing Fritz, grabbing his toy mouse and aggressively dangling it in front of a teenage party guest, who then attempted to convincingly swoon from fright.
Mounsey frowned and shook her head. "We need some acting here. You're an elegant Victorian lady," she told the teenager, her South African accent sharply accentuated as she stood perfectly straight with a regal expression and expressed her idea of elegance by dramatically raising her hand and elongating her fingers.
In an interview a few days before the dress rehearsal, Mounsey, though jet-lagged from a recent trip to Johannesburg and Parys, South Africa, was happy to talk about why her annual "Nutcracker" production, loosely based on the San Francisco Ballet's 1944 version, remains an integral part of Westside Ballet (along with a public spring recital).
"It gives a chance for all the little children to participate and for all the students, it's so important to their training," she said. "When you're onstage, it's do or die, no more messing up. And they get to work on their stage presence, which is something we don't do much in class."
"There are steps you think you can't do in class, but when you set your mind to playing a role, you realize you can accomplish a lot more than you think you can," said Rachel Schwartz, 16, who has studied at Westside Ballet for 11 years and has performed in seven "Nutcrackers."
Schwartz, who's a junior at Harvard-Westlake School, observed how every year, her friends ask if she's sick and tired of "Nutcracker" performances, and, "I'm always shocked by how excited I am. I walk around with Tchaikovsky's music in my head and it always makes me think of how when I was little, I looked up to the Dew Drop Fairy and the Level 7 girls seemed like goddesses. Now I'm in Level 7 and the little girls know who I am ... it's so satisfying," she said.
For Mounsey, "seeing the children happy and enthusiastic" keeps her motivated year after year. "They're always so wired up. Also, it's just a lovely ballet and it never gets boring for me," she said.
Ultimately, Mounsey's devotion to the "Nutcracker" seems rooted in her passion for teaching and improving the artistry of her students, many of whom continued on to professional careers in New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and other storied companies. "Yvonne treats everyone as if there's a future for them in the ballet world," observed Lavac. "She was a great ballerina, but she was also meant to be a teacher. That's the key to her longevity."
Though she joked that her active lifestyle as a nonagenarian can be attributed "to all the raw milk" she drank while growing up on a South African dairy farm, Mounsey also said she'd "go crazy" if she didn't teach. "Just to see these kids get better and realize their dreams. Plus, ballet is so beautiful," she said, moving her arms into a port de bras while seated on a chair in her office. "I still feel invigorated, just by doing this with my arms. It's hard to explain, but it's not just lifting your arms. It's coming from here."
She pointed to her heart.