- Having performed in The Nutcracker from the time she was two, Cooper Rust says the production of this classical ballet is a time-honored tradition that’s been practiced annually at Christmas time in Kenya since 2015.
- This year Cooper, 36, won’t actually be in the Ballet.
- But she has choreographed and directed the show which opens December 3 at the National Theatr
Having performed in The Nutcracker from the time she was two, Cooper Rust says the production of this classical ballet is a time-honored tradition that’s been practiced annually at Christmas time in Kenya since 2015 when her Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) first staged it at Kenya’s National Theatre.
“It’s not only staged in Kenya at Christmas time,” the DCK founder tells BDLife. “It’s performed all over the world since it’s a story about a little girl who receives a [fantastical] Christmas toy,” she adds.
This year Cooper, 36, won’t actually be in the Ballet. But she has choreographed and directed the show which opens December 3 at the National Theatre.
“I’ll perform in Cinderella in February,” she says. “I’ll play the wicked step-mother,” she adds with a twinkle in her eye.
Explaining that her choreography varies every year, depending on her dancers, many of whom will be new, Cooper says that her students have been rehearsing and dancing throughout the lockdown.
“We are really excited about coming back on stage, since some of us didn’t know if it would ever happen again,” she says, recalling the last time DCK staged a ballet [Romeo and Juliet] was in February 2019.
But her dancers never doubted they would come back. That is why they rehearsed non-stop with this former prima ballerina instructor who’s become like a mother to many of them.
In fact, eleven of the dancers that are in this year’s Nutcracker actually live with Cooper 80 percent of the year. “All eleven have families who they stay with part of the year,” she explains. But she knew that if these dancers were going to fulfill their full potential, they would need to work hard. And she was prepared to work with them.
But as all eleven come from informal settlements, either Kibera or Kuwinda, Cooper says the biggest headache was transport. That was the first consideration for having her most promising young dancers come to live, dance, and study with her.
It all began with the 15-year-old Joel Kioko from Kuwinda, a slum burrowed away deep inside Karen. Joel had come to Dance Centre Kenya as a scholarship student after Cooper had spotted his tremendous potential when she was still teaching dance to under-served kids in the slums.
But she quickly realized that in order to ensure he fulfill his full capacity and also be able to travel for further dance training that she was prepared to organize for him, she would need to tutor him academically as well as dance-wise. And that couldn’t happen unless he came to stay and work with her, which is what he did.
Today, Joel just graduated from the English National Ballet School and now has a full-time job working professionally with one of the most acclaimed dance companies in America, the Joffrey Ballet.
Two other of Cooper’s former ‘family members’, Francis Waweru and Pamela Atieno, have also gone on for further studies, Waweru to study lighting design in Oklahoma, in the US, and Atieno to South Carolina where she’s continuing her studies in ballet.
And soon, the fourth housemate, the lovely Lavender Orisaa, 15, will soon be following Joel’s footsteps in travelling to the UK on a full scholarship to study at the English National Ballet School.
Lavender will costar in the Nutcracker as the Dew Drop Fairy. Other members of the Cooper family household who are in the ballet are George Okoth playing the Snow Cavalier, Shamick Otieno as the Sugar Plum Cavalier, and Mithelle.. and Elsy together play the leaders of the rat pack.
“Then there’s the six boys from Kibera [ages 12-14] who will comprise the rat pack in the ballet,” Cooper adds.
Noting that she only missed four days of rehearsals during the lockdown, Cooper says she did spend a couple of weeks in the States, fundraising for her children’s school fees. “Besides transportation, I realized that education was also a problem for my dancers. That’s why we had to fundraise for the young ones to go to ISK,” she adds.
In addition to her housemates, Cooper’s cast is international. The 13-year-old boy who plays the actual nutcracker, Aske Ballan, is from Denmark. Clara is played by a girl from Bulgaria, Jana Landolt, the Sugar Plum Fairy is French, Oceane Deloge, and the Snow Queen is played by the British girl Anamika Govani.
This weekend, on Sunday at 1pm, DCK will stage a dress rehearsal of The Nutcracker for hundreds of children from informal settlements. At 4pm there will be a preview for adults.
But the official opening is Friday, December 3 at Kenya National Theatre.