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11/24/2012
New director takes on Nutcracker
Britta Pihl, the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker, dances during a dress rehearsal Saturday at Ketchikan Theater Ballet. Staff photo by Hall Anderson


By DANELLE LANDIS

Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan Theatre Ballet Director Elizabeth Long noticed something pretty quickly that set her new home of Ketchikan apart from her previous homes in Missouri and southern Oklahoma.

“The concrete felt soggy,” she said she joked to her family and friends, about Ketchikan’s rain-soaked character.

Long took on the role as assistant director of KTB under the tutelage of Marguerite Auger. She had heard about the open position from Elizabeth (Schafer) Avila, a KTB teacher who grew up in Ketchikan and graduated with Long from Stevens College in Columbia, Mo.

She said when she told her father she was considering taking a job in Alaska, she said, “He knew right away it was the right thing to do.”

Long said she majored in dance in college, and had experience working in dance administration before coming to KTB. She worked as assistant director from 2009 to spring 2011, when Auger retired from her 25-year career as the organization’s leader.

“It’s definitely been a huge learning process,” Long said, adding that learning how to multi-task was the biggest challenge.

Long said she knew she wanted to teach dance from the time she was 14 years old. Her dance instructor at that time noticed that Long had an interest in technical aspects, structure and in how other students were learning. That teacher invited Long to begin teaching under her mentorship.

Long said she pursued her bachelor’s degree in dance so she could “learn more and grow more so I have more to give students.”

One of the aspects Long said she’s enjoyed best while working for the nonprofit organization is the support of the people who work in the Ketchikan arts community.

They have been “very welcoming, very encouraging,” she said.

She said she enjoyed collaborating with musician Kim Henrickson and costumer Sherry Henrickson when producing the Festival of the North in February. She mentioned that the cooperation between KTB and other arts organizations for the Gigglefeet shows and the Artscool programs is impressive as well.

“I get this real sense of community,” she said, adding, “The people are so willing to give here.”

She said it has been “humbling” to witness the lengths so many people in Ketchikan are willing to go to in support of the arts.

Creative freedom is another favorite aspect of her role as KTB director, Long said, especially when knitting together big shows like the Festival of the North, or The Nutcracker Ballet, which she is working on now.

A nonprofit dance agency, free from the need to follow trends to please the whims of customers is a definite benefit for a community, Long said. Teachers can set policy, and create scheduling and class content while focusing on quality, discipline and consistency.

She said discipline is one of the key lessons dancers take away from their time enrolled in KTB classes.

“It’s an outlet for children and young adults not only to experience themselves creatively, but also to learn time management, responsibility, teamwork and commitment,” Long said.

For students interested in a dance career, Long said she agrees with the adage that it takes “10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work ... you have to enjoy hard work.”

Several KTB alumnae have made careers as professional dancers, Long said, including Jess Hofmann, who is teaching at KTB; Caity Koch; Avila; and Tallie Medel.

Long said one reason the organization has been so successful is that Auger did “a really great job” training people in the past, and hired “quality people.”

On her first day working for KTB, Long said she overheard teachers Ashley Byler and Carol Schafer talking about why they were using a certain teaching approach.

“It was a really great dialogue,” Long said — clear of egos, fueled by cameraderie and concern for their craft.

Long said KTB is less expensive for families than many private studios she has worked for. Dancers share drycleaning fees for costumes, for instance, rather than having to buy costumes outright for every performance.

The Sugar Plum Fairy costume for The Nutcracker for instance, costs nearly $1,000, she said.

The upcoming Nutcracker performances, scheduled for Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, will feature Bella Roberts as Clara, Phillip Smith as Fritz and James Scott as Uncle Drosselmeyer. About 70 performers are participating in the show, Long said.

Emma Scott, Gracie Brandt-Erichsen, Britta Pihl, Nathan Buendia and Rachael Gass are Ketchikan High School seniors, and lend the ballet the power of their experience, Long said.

The Nutcracker is a “way to showcase what they’ve learned,” she said, adding, “They’re really a special group of kids.”

New choreography by Hofmann and instructor Kelsey Newsom also will be featured in this year’s performance, Long said.

Two guest dancers from out of town will play various parts, including the jester doll, Nutcracker Prince, dewdrop fairy escort and Snow Queen.

“We have some really amazing dancers,” she said.

Long said she danced as Clara in The Nutcracker when she was about 7 years old.

She said she is not working to place any new twists or her own interpretation on the classic ballet piece, but she does adjust to suit the cast of dancers as is appropriate.

Long said she is happy to be busy with myriad challenges and is enjoying Ketchikan and its benefits.

“The community is wonderful,” she said. “The parents are so appreciative.”