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Nutcracker Forever

Micki Kolberg, Conner Chew, Courtney Hiraoka, Pamela Taylor Tongg and Raven Matsushita. Photo by Bodie Collins

Micki Kolberg, Conner Chew, Courtney Hiraoka, Pamela Taylor Tongg and Raven Matsushita. Photo by Bodie Collins

Pamela Taylor Tongg danced 300 ‘Nutcrackers’ with Atlanta Ballet, and for 30 years she’s been sharing the holiday tradition with her Ballet Hawaii students who take to the Blaisdell Concert Hall stage for three performances starting Dec. 18

‘Tis the season when visions of sugar plum fairies dance in our heads.

For Pamela Taylor Tongg, sugar plum fairies, toy soldiers and even rats are always on her mind.

She’s dedicated her life to bringing these beloved Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker characters to life on stage, first as a dancer and for 30 years running as artistic director for Ballet Hawaii.

When we meet to discuss her 30th anniversary, prep for three holiday performances at Blaisdell Concert Hall is coming down to the wire. Yet, Taylor Tongg is a picture of poise, dressed in her signature style: all black-framed by a chic blond bob. To say she has a glow indicative of someone who loves her job is no exaggeration, although she’s quick to point out, “Sometimes I look around and say, ‘I’m still here doing this?’ It boggles the mind.”

Her work, it seems, is never done. It comes with the territory for a perfectionist preoccupied with every Nutcracker nuance and endless energy that defies her 68 years.

“You don’t have a concept about how much I obsess over casting,” admits the tireless leading lady.

“She thinks about it nonstop,” interjects student-turned-teacher Raven Matsushita. “She dreams about it.”

It’s a fitting metaphor for Taylor Tongg’s life, since Nutcracker chronicles a young girl’s dream through a ballet that has endured the test of time. Nutcracker is a personal favorite because, in her words, “It’s tradition. It feels like Christmas and a child’s dream.”

It offers 160 local performers the opportunity fulfill their dream to dance different roles and to share the stage with guest artists from top ballet companies. Taylor Tongg’s comment about “obsessing over casting” has more to do with tempering her dancers’ disappointment when losing certain roles than her personal pride in putting on a perfect production.

Her reward is seeing it all “click” when they perform in front of a live audience filled with family, friends, and new fans who may have never seen a ballet before. “That’s one of the greatest joys, to see the desire and love come alive,” says Taylor Tongg with a twinkle in her eye.

When asked how many ballerinas she has influenced, she dances around the topic with the grace of a prima ballerina.

“I don’t know … a few,” is her coy response.

It’s a telling understatement that reveals more about her humble nature than a desire for honors, including recognition by the City and County of Honolulu and state of Hawaii for outstanding cultural contributions.

Taylor Tongg raised the bar for Ballet Hawaii by bringing in master dancers to teach and inspire students, opening satellite campuses in Wahiawa and Kapolei, and creating scholarships for students who can’t afford classes.

Contrary to the competitive drama depicted in the film Black Swan, Taylor Tongg enjoys taking dancers under her wing to “unlock their potential.” She saw something special in Matsushita, who started ballet at age 4 on a scholarship, graduated to pointe at 12, and will perform in her 18th Nutcracker alongside her Ballet Hawaii students. Matsushita was inspired to teach by her mentor, saying, “The hard work, blisters and pain” are worth it to perform and pass on the passion for dance.

“It’s a great profession,” adds Taylor Tongg, with a disclaimer: “It’s not an easy profession or a well-paying one.”

As we retrace her career, our conversation uncovers an uncanny connection.

Taylor Tongg danced in 300 Nutcracker with Atlanta Ballet from 1975 to 1985.

We share a laugh as we realize that I was in the audience for one of her shows, my first Nutcracker, which inspired me to take up ballet.

Taylor Tongg’s path to professional dancer is equally unlikely. She started ballet in Chicago when she was 3 and continued into her teens, before taking a break to get married and have a child.

She returned to ballet at age 22 and landed a coveted role as soloist with Atlanta Ballet, which led to her greatest memory: dancing with daughter Sarah, who played the lead in Nutcracker from age 7 to 13.

Sarah was touched to know how much that meant to her mom, saying by phone from Charlotte, “I felt like such a part of her world, which was really special to me, especially looking back. Outside of her family, it’s her life. She loves it and her passion is infectious.”

Sarah describes being awe-struck watching her petite mom, a “beautiful dancer, ridiculously flexible, who could do the difficult roles she did.”

It turns out there was one role that she wasn’t good at: retiree. When Taylor Tongg left Atlanta for Hawaii in 1985, it was to hang up her ballet shoes. “I thought I had retired. I ended up starting to rehearse 12 ballerinas.”

Twelve became 40, and now Ballet Hawaii averages 500 a year. Her daughter had a hunch retirement wouldn’t stick, saying, “Because she loves it so much and it’s in her soul, her life doesn’t make sense without it. It feeds her spirit.”

Sarah is more surprised that her mom keeps up the pace, and Taylor Tongg shows no signs of slowing down before Ballet Hawaii’s 40th anniversary next season. She’s energized by the possibilities. After resurrecting well-worn costumes that have survived 12 years, countless dye jobs and demanding dance movements, next season will usher in new Nutcracker staging, sets and costumes.

Ballerinas have a trick to extend the life of their pointe shoes: They bake them. Taylor Tongg chuckles at the notion that she’s done that with her career, saying, “When you’re really meant to do it, you can’t run away from it.”

Besides, she has something up her sleeves to put a fresh twist on the holiday tradition. “There’s so much more to go to make the Nutcracker Hawaii’s own,” she suggests.

For this lifelong ballerina, it seems those visions of sugar plum fairies will last long after the curtain closes on another Nutcracker.

Ticket Information:


Blaisdell Concert Hall
Dec. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are available at Blaisdell Box Office and at ticketmaster.com.
Charge by phone at (800) 745-3000.
For more information, visit BalletHawaii.org