Of course, Mark Diamond has to play Drosselmeyer.
Who is Drosselmeyer, in the Charlotte Ballet version of “The Nutcracker” that opens Dec. 7 at Belk Theater? A grandfatherly type guiding young Clara toward maturity through a gift imbued with magic.
Who is Diamond, in the hierarchy of Charlotte Ballet? A grandfatherly type guiding young dancers toward professional careers through advice imbued with 50 years of experience.
He’s been a principal dancer in the United States and Germany, a choreographer, an educator. Yet his main job now, after 22 years with Charlotte Ballet, is to watch over eight dancers in its second company.
These workhorses perform lecture-demonstrations and residencies in schools, understudy roles done by CB’s first company, dance in big shows – you may see them in “Nutcracker” as anything from dolls to soloists in Act 2 divertissements – and try to make sense of lives and careers shortly after high school.
“At 18 or 19, they all live in the present,” Diamond says. “It’s a big responsibility to try to understand them. I still have journals I wrote when I was young, and I sometimes read those to stay in touch with how they’re thinking.
“That’s a reason to do Drosselmeyer. (This will be his 13th time for Charlotte Ballet.) I face the challenges young dancers face, so I can feel what they feel. And it gives the show extra weight when a professional does an acting role. Putting elderly makeup and white hair on a young dancer doesn’t work well.”
Time and wisdom have turned Diamond’s own hair white. Young Mark Murachanian – he became Diamond when his mother remarried – started as a clarinetist, forcing himself to practice: The family figured he could play in a military band, if he were drafted during the Vietnam War.
He eventually changed the focus from lips to legs, inspired by a high school teacher who “didn’t think I could make it as a dancer. It became my mission to prove him wrong. (That’s why) I’m more and more aware of how important what I say to young dancers can be.”
He became a principal at Milwaukee Ballet at 23, danced for another decade and finished at Hamburg Ballet in 1983. He was working at The School for Creative and Performing Arts in his home town of Cincinnati when his crossed paths with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who asked to see a video of Diamond’s choreography. The result? Guest work at Indiana University, where Bonnefoux was on the faculty, and a position at Chautauqua Institution, where Bonnefoux directs the summer dance program. (Diamond has taught and choreographed there for three decades.)
When Bonnefoux came to Charlotte to run what was then called N.C. Dance Theatre, Diamond became its director of education in 1996. Two weeks later, he switched to the job he has held for 20 years. It’s a unique position: He choreographs most of the work CB II takes to schools, basing it on the strengths of dancers he has just gotten to know and will inevitably lose very soon.
“You’re a paid professional dancer, usually for the first time. The pay’s not high, but with a roommate, you’ll do fine,” says Diamond. “You have two years in Charlotte Ballet II to figure out if this is the place for you. If not, or if there’s no room in the first company (of 18 dancers), it’s time to audition elsewhere.
“About 10 to 20 percent of our first company comes from our second. Some dancers in first companies elsewhere have taken jobs in our second, so they could move up: Alex Ball (James) and David Ingram did that. (Artistic director) Hope Muir always knows what these dancers can do. I push for them internally, but she knows if they’re ready to move up when someone leaves or a contract isn’t renewed.”
Diamond designed three school programs this year with input from director of education Bianca Bonner. He assembled them in fewer than six weeks, adjusting to newcomers’ gifts and sending new dancers to company classes to overcome deficiencies or inexperience. “I push them,” he says. “My job is to get the pieces done, then clean them up afterward.”
Little children see a storybook program of “The Ugly Duckling” or “Rumpelstiltskin.” Students in grades 6 through 12 watch work about black history or Shakespeare: The former offers pieces based on spirituals or the words of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. – yes, dancers have to learn to speak well -- while the latter adapts bits of “Macbeth” or juxtaposes “Romeo and Juliet” with “West Side Story.”
First-company dancers may set pieces for Diamond, especially those designed in CB’s choreographic lab: Sarah Hayes Harkins did “Rumpelstiltskin,” and Juwan Alston choreographed the number for spirituals. Otherwise, Diamond usually sets everything. When Uganda native Victoria Jaenson joined CB II this season, for instance, he quickly installed her as Desdemona in an updated “Othello.”
Some older artists might shun a life of constant turmoil, one where they have to reinvent a mini-universe every year or two. Diamond remains unruffled.
“In dance, there’s always some kind of turnover,” he says with a shrug. “People retire, they get injured, they feel they need to go to another company. That’s part of life for any choreographer.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
WHEN: Dec. 7-23 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Also at 2 p.m. Dec. 21 and 7 p.m. Dec 16 and 23. Sensory-friendly show at 1 p.m. Dec. 13; discounted dress rehearsal for senior citizens Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m.; educational performances Dec. 12 and 14 at 10 a.m.; “A Night at the Nutcracker” party Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.