What are your plans for this holiday season? No doubt, they include attempting to navigate the demands of an endless to-do list: shopping and decorating, cooking and baking, gift exchanging, and there must of course be time for holiday merriment! While I too will enjoy all of these traditions and comforts of the season, as a dancer in Pennsylvania Ballet, my main objective each year tends to be to survive the marathon that is 27 performances of The Nutcracker (plus the rehearsals). For me, December is the month of the year uniquely dedicated to a particular Tschaikovsky tradition, full of nostalgia, magic, wonder, and, yes, some hard work, too.
Whether you're seeing the ballet for the first time or the 50th, there is no denying the magic and festivity of The Nutcracker. What better way to celebrate the season with family than with a visit to the Land of the Sweets? I remember quite vividly my first introduction to the story of Marie and her beloved Nutcracker. I wanted to be her: Marie's great courage inspired me, and I was totally captivated by all of the graceful, beautiful ballerinas who then danced in her honor. It was a dream world that I hadn't known existed, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Now as an adult, I have learned what a joy and a gift it is to be able to bring others into that magical world.
Growing up in sunny South Florida, I rarely spent the holidays in a cold climate. Scarves, hats and gloves, sledding, and building snowmen were all but foreign ideas to me. We'd instead see our palm trees decorated with twinkling lights, and the big community tradition is an annual boat parade, with holiday-themed decorated boats lighting up the Intracoastal Waterway "stage." Though the warm weather is nice and I often miss it now, when I was little I always used to wish that come Christmas morning, I would wake up to a few snowflakes falling outside. Of course, that never happened. I think that's why I have always found the Snow scene especially wonderful: the first time I saw it, I was enchanted by the extraordinary vision that unfolded in front of me. What at first were just a few flurries swirling around the stage soon became an organized blizzard of ballerinas. Even after all these years, I still get an extra-special thrill seeing the flakes begin to fall on stage, and dancing in the "snow" makes for a sensory experience unlike any other.
I must admit that it is not always easy to maintain a high level of enthusiasm over the course of the month; as a Corps de Ballet member, I may perform two to three roles in a single performance! Though it can be exhausting, what never fails to keep me going is the thought of the children, both the ones dancing alongside me and those who I know are our newest audience members. Every day, halfway through Company Class the whole cast of kids dancing in that performance files in through the stage door and up to their dressing rooms, always bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, abuzz with hushed chatter and clearly excited to take the stage. Their eager energy is always a welcome reminder to me of why I chose ballet as my career, of my own love of dance. To me, The Nutcracker is truly about seeing the world through a child's eyes, and using our imagination.
I started studying ballet relatively late, and when I think back to the year I first had the chance to audition for and perform in my school's Nutcracker, all of the feelings I had come flooding back: hope, anticipation, nervousness, thrilled adrenaline, and finally a sense of accomplishment. I try to channel those feelings every time I step onto the stage. In the wings, standing next to a group of whispering Angels, I can't help but feel like there's a small part of me that still is that wide-eyed little girl, full of wonder. I am reminded that someone in this audience is seeing The Nutcracker for the first time, and I want it to be just as magical for him or her as it was for me.
This Nutcracker season marks my seventh year dancing it with Pennsylvania Ballet, though the time seems to have passed so quickly. I spent two years in Pennsylvania Ballet II and my first thrilling performance with the main Company happened to be as a member of the corps of Hot Chocolate, one of my favorite divertissements. Since then, I've rotated through eight different roles, each one a new adventure and opportunity to experience the show from a different perspective. Each time I dance a new role, I discover more special moments to look forward to. My favorite is probably getting to interact with Marie and the Prince as the Sugarplum Fairy. Welcoming them to the Land of the Sweets, and listening to their heroic tale that the Prince tells through pantomime always calms me when I'm nervous, and reminds me that the most important thing for the audience is not necessarily the steps, but rather the warmth and joy of the story.
In a world that is constantly facing new problems, in which we see far too much tragedy, animosity, and unspeakable violence, I believe it's important to preserve our cherished traditions and rituals that celebrate the positive, happy moments in life. Dancing The Nutcracker year after year may be challenging, but it's sincerely meaningful to me because I know it's a small way in which I can help spread more joy and love in spite of the negativity surrounding us. As Artistic Director Angel Corella once said to us in a rehearsal, "We don't save lives, we save souls!" I hope you will leave the theater today feeling a little lighter, and carry that feeling with you throughout this holiday season.