The holidays are a time for gift giving. For Houston Ballet ballerina, Bridgett Zehr, landing the leading role of the Snow Queen in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker is a dream gift. The holidays are a special time for Zehr. First of all, she was born on Christmas day. The Nutcracker is especially charged with meaning; it was Zehr’s first ballet memory.
“I have been a snowflake before but never the Queen. When the casting was posted I didn’t even think to check the principal parts. I looked below and saw that I would be doing the Arabian Dance again, a flower, and a snowflake. I looked up and there I was, a Snow Queen! I was so excited. I love this part,” says Zehr.
Luck (and no shortage of talent and determination) has been on Zehr’s side. When she was seven years old and living in Florida with her family, her mother checked her school backpack on a whim. Ordinarily, she wasn’t one to check on a daily basis. That day, Zehr had been given a special audition notice about a program called Dance-The Next Generation (DNG), a scholarship program for underprivileged children run by the Sarasota Ballet. DNG provides instruction, dancewear, and transportation free of charge to at-risk children. Zehr’s mother had danced for ten years during her youth in Buffalo, New York, and was excited about the possibility of her two daughters dancing. At the time ballet lessons were beyond the family’s budget. Lessons and supplies can add up to a financial burden for any family. Zehr and her sister auditioned and were both accepted into the program. “After my first year of ballet I knew I wanted to dance professionally,” remembers Zehr.
Zehr attended Harid Conservatory, a boarding dance High School, for three years before coming to Houston. After spending two summers and one year at the Houston Ballet Academy on the Rudolf Nureyev Scholarship, she was invited to be an apprentice in the company. In 2004 Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director, Stanton Welch, invited her to be a member of the corps de ballet. Zehr even turned down a prestigious offer from American Ballet Theatre to join the Houston Ballet.
“I love Houston. The weather is just like Florida. The culture at the Houston Ballet is wonderful. The dancers are so friendly; I have a wonderful community here. I couldn’t be happier. Of course I want to explore the museums and get to know the city better.”
During her apprenticeship at Houston Ballet, Zehr danced some extraordinary roles. She appeared as Calliope in Apollo for the Ballet’s Balanchine centennial celebration. Zehr’s elegant line is particularly suited for Balanchine’s minimalist choreography. Molly Glentzer, the dance critic for the Houston Chronicle, praised her performance as Calliope calling her a “a shooting star.”
“Balanchine feels so good on my body. I love his musicality, the interesting lines, and the sharp edges of the choreography. It’s so much fun,”
Zehr also made into the first cast of Welch’s ground breaking work, Divergence. This was quite a rare achievement for an apprentice. Welch was impressed with her diligence and abilities. “I think Bridgett has a maturity to her that makes her stand out. It’s hard to believe she is so young-she has a level of calmness that you don’t often find in young dancers. It seems like she’s an old soul on stage. She has amazing facility and confident technique,” states Welch.
Last July, Zehr traveled to Shanghai for the International Ballet Competition. She was thrilled to make it the final round. This past August she was invited to Ohio to dance in a Gala for the competitors. “Traveling to China opened my eyes to whole new world. I loved learning about the Chinese culture. Dance can bring people together; you just feel this connection with people. The Chinese dancers were amazing; their technique is so beautiful and simple.”
The strenuous preparation for the competition left Zehr with a stress fracture that kept her off the stage for much of the fall season. Staying in shape with Pilates allowed Zehr to get back on her feet. Currently she is preparing for the role with a vengeance. Visiting rehearsals of the other Snow Queens combined with the excellent coaching of Houston Ballet’s Artistic Associate, Maina Gielgud, Zehr feels confident she will be well prepared. After years of playing a snowflake Zehr is well acquainted with the role.
“I learned the part because I loved it. I go to other rehearsals. There is so much to learn from listening and watching. Everyone does the Snow Queen in a different way.”
The Snow Queen section of The Nutcracker is crucial to the story. The party is over, the character dances are finished and it’s time for Clara to enter a deeply magical world. The choreography shifts to pure ballet. Zehr finds herself attracted to the role for a number of reasons.
“The Snow Queen established the magical kingdom for Clara. Stamina wise, it’s a marathon. The dance starts slow and soft and keeps building and building. Pas de deux is a strong point for me; I love dancing with a partner. The choreography goes perfectly with the music, it’s just so dancey! After the pas de deux the snowflakes enter and the Queen dances with them. It ends with the snowflakes on the floor in two strong lines. The Snow Queen puts Clara in the sleigh sending her off to the next part of the journey,” states Zehr.
Zehr is excited that her parents will be traveling from Florida to see her dance again this year. “My parents love The Nutcracker. My dad thinks it’s the only ballet!”
Zehr will turn 20 this Christmas. She’s proud of what she has accomplished so far and all signs point to a bright future. Welch’s gift to Zehr in this marvelous opportunity will be her gift to Houston Ballet audiences.
The Houston Ballet’s production of Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker runs through December 26th. Bridgett Zehr will be dancing the Snow Queen on Dec 16, 19, 23 (Matinee), and 26th (Matinee). For ticket information call 713-227-2787 or visit http://www.houstonballet.org/.
This piece appeared in the December issue of Houston Woman Magazine. http://www.houstonwomanmagazine.com/
Photo by Jim Caldwell