It’s been 10 years since Derek Dunn performed “The Nutcracker” with Edna Lee Dance Studio (ELDS). He returned for the first time this month to join his youth school in the production.
“I have been wanting to do this ever since I joined a professional company,” said Dunn. “It’s a huge full-circle moment to come back and be able to do the first ballet production I did with my old studio. ‘Nutcracker’ specifically is a special thing to come back for.”
Dunn, now a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, first performed “The Nutcracker” with ELDS when he was 9 years old.
“I started dancing there when I was 6 just for fun. It developed into this huge passion of mine,” Dunn said. “From a really early age, I knew it was something I wanted to keep doing for a long time.”
Dunn attributes his passion for ballet to Ashley Cantera Hardy, one of his teachers at ELDS. The two started working together when Dunn was 8.
“For a lot of little kids, ballet can seem tedious because it’s very disciplined, and it can be slow,” Dunn said. “Ashley knew how to get kids’ attention, even when kids are being kids. She knows how to mold them into hardworking and focused students.”
Dunn and Cantera Hardy continued to work together after Dunn moved to the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia when he was 14. He sought out her help when coming up with choreography for his competitions.
“I was still able to have a hand in that, which was really cool and nice to still be a part of. He was such an amazing kid to work with,” said Cantera Hardy, who started “The Nutcracker” at ELDS 14 years ago. “Not only is he honestly the most talented human being I’ve ever seen, he’s the most kind and humble. It’s nice that we’ve been able to stay in contact all this time.”
At this year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” Dunn was cast as Cavalier and Cantera Hardy as Sugar Plum Fairy, meaning the two danced together onstage.
“Growing up, I always looked up to her as this huge role model,” Dunn said. “My goal was always to make it and come back and be able to perform with her. This is a huge check that I get to check off my bucket list.”
Dunn wanted to be hands-on in his return to his youth school. He taught a masterclass to the students during one of his visits.
“It was really neat because he wanted everybody to feel a part of it, not like he’s this person who comes, dances, leaves and nobody has any contact with,” Cantera Hardy said. “It’s such a huge thing for the kids to see. That thought process is hard when you’re like, ‘One day, I want to be that.’ It’s like, ‘Well, you can be.’ It shows them.”
Since leaving ELDS, Dunn has worked in a host of cities across the East Coast. He studied at the Rock School for Dance Education for three years. Then, he was offered an apprentice contract with Houston Ballet in 2012, where he worked his way up as a soloist in 2016. In 2017, Boston Ballet offered Dunn a soloist contract.
Performing “The Nutcracker” was exciting for Dunn because he was finally able to perform in front of his hometown audience. The performances were December 7-9 at Chesapeake High School.
“I haven’t really made it easy for [my family] to come see me dance since I’m never home,” Dunn said. “I’ve had family come see me dance in different parts of the country, but this is home, and I get to have more friends and family come that haven’t got to see me before since I was kid. It’s really cool for me to show them what I’ve been working on and what I’ve been doing for the past eight years as a professional.”