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Ex-Joffrey Ballet dancer Anastacia Holden pauses retirement to star in Nutcracker in Greeley

December 6, 2018 


Terry Frei 


 Anastacia Holden in Chicago, during her final days with the renowned Joffrey Ballet before her retirement in 2017. (Max Herman / For The Tribune.)

When the Greeley-based Colorado Dance Theatre this weekend performs “The Nutcracker,” the Tchaikovsky-scored ballet that long has been a holiday-season staple, the production’s Sugar Plum Fairy will be a well-known name in the ballet world.

Anastaia Holden retired from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet last year at age 31 to concentrate on running Embarc, the education non-profit organization she co-founded in 2010. Raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., she began as a Joffrey apprentice in 2003 and joined the company full-time in 2005.

Writer Hedy Weiss’ major Chicago Sun Times profile on Holden as she approached her final Joffrey performances in April 2017 portrayed her as stepping away while “dancing at the top of her game.” It was as though a Cubs outfielder had decided to quit at age 31 after hitting .303 with 24 home runs and 102 runs-batted-in.

And here she is, 17 months later, dipping her toe shoe back in it as a Nutcracker guest artist… in Greeley.


 Anastacia Holden performing in Jiri Kylian’s ballet Forgotten Land. (Courtesy Anastacia Holden.)

In a phone interview from Chicago this week, Holden said she has done “three or four” guest artist appearances since her Joffrey retirement, and she is scheduled to perform the Sugar Plum Fairy role in the CDT production at the Union Colony Civic Center, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

So how did this come about?

Benjamin Wardell, a renowned independent dance figure on the Chicago scene, was set to return to Greeley as a guest artist for the fourth consecutive year and again dance the male lead, as the Cavalier. His guest artist partner the previous three years was Jen Drake of Nashville, but she wasn’t available this time.

Wardell needed a partner.

He had never danced with Holden, but they knew of each other and Wardell knew retired dancers don’t have jammed schedules.

“He asked if I was available,” Holden said. She laughed and added, “And I said yes.”

More importantly, she agreed to do it.

“I’m pretty excited to see her dance,” said CDT artistic director Debie Larsen. “She’s got a very lovely resume.”

This is the only Nutcracker appearance Holden is doing this year, though the guest artist opportunities are numerous because virtually all companies, large and small, perform the ballet during the holiday season. Her retirement never was meant to be a statement that she never would step back onto the stage, but it’s still a bit surprising that she’s doing this gig in Greeley.


 Anastacia Holden as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutracker, the role she will dance in Greeley this weekend. (Courtesy Anastacia Holden.)

“I was confident I could find my footing and be stable as this kind of freelance artist,” she said. “I’ve also been doing staging. I just wanted to explore something new.

“Also, I’d had a wonderful, wonderful career at Joffrey and I wanted to retire before I started to decline too much. That was really important to me, actually.”

Had that decline started?

“No,” she said. “I think I could have gone for five more years before that decline really significantly happened. But I also was ready. I thought about it for a long time, played with the decision and looked at it from all different angles, and I was ready.”

 Colorado Dance Theatre's The Nutcracker


Monfort Concert Hall, Union Colony Civic Center, 701 10th Ave

Friday, December 7 and Saturday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 9 at 2 p.m.

CDT has 15 senior dancers. Its Nutcracker cast numbers about 130, both dancers and others, such as revelers in the party scene. “They’re all from the Greeley-Windsor and surrounding areas,” said CDT’s artistic director, Debie Larsen. “We hold open auditions on the last Saturday in August and everyone who auditions gets a part. We don’t turn anyone away.”

Russell Guyver, University of Northern Colorado professor of music and director of orchestras, also heads the CDT’s Nutcracker orchestra.

Company information: coloradodancetheatre.org


Holden dived even more than before into running Embarc, the city-wide social and cultural education project. Among other duties, she still handles the financial record-keeping and human relations for the non-profit’s 16 full- and part-time employees. She said Embarc is associated with 19 Chicago schools and 930 students. It promotes activities outside school hours, including trips to theaters, museums, businesses and activities.

“It’s doing well,” she said. “We have a lot of excellent programs going for our students. We focus on giving back as part of our core mission for our students, that once they become successful in their own lives, to inspire them to create changes in their own community, which will lead to the kind of lasting change you want to see.”

As she worked with Embarc over the past year, she continued to take dance classes to stay in touch with the dance world. Since early November, she has been rehearsing the Sugar Plum Fairy Nutcracker role opposite Wardell.

“We’ve been rehearsing a few times a week, and kind of amping that up as time went on,” Holden said. “Ben has been great. I’ve admired his dancing for many years, but we’d never worked together so there’s a certain unfamiliarity if it’s going to be a good connection. I’m so pleasantly surprised. It’s been easy and seamless.”

She and Wardell aren’t scheduled to come to Greeley until Thursday, and the trick will be to integrate their performances and choreography into the CDT production and its cast of about 130.

“To be in shape for Sugar Plum is a challenge physically,” Holden said. “But I’m used to doing that. That part is actually easier than the unfamiliarity of a new production, the cast, and the expectations. Of course, as a performer, I expect a lot of myself.”

If she sounds like a dancer second-guessing her Joffrey retirement, she says that interpretation is misguided.

“It was the right decision for me,” she said. “It’s fun for me to have chance to perform here and there, but not on a full-time basis.”