It’s impossible to imagine George Balanchine’s The NutcrackerTM without children—and not just the ones in the audience. Young dancers between the ages of 8 and 13 help propel the plot in the ballet’s first act, danced in the proper living room of the Stahlbaum family, home to Marie and her impish brother Fritz. Children are again a focal point in the second act as Candy Canes, Marzipan, Hot Chocolate and other whimsical inhabitants of the Land of Sweets frolic for the enjoyment of Marie and the Prince. Young dancers appear in many of Balanchine’s ballets, though none as prominently as in The Nutcracker. Balanchine, after all, was himself a child dancer, performing with the Imperial Russian Ballet. Each fall, two alternating casts of youthful dancers are plucked from the ranks of the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official school of New York City Ballet, to appear in the Company’s holiday jewel.
What’s it like to dance in front of nearly 3,000 people a night while you’re still in elementary school? We talked with six young performers about their experiences, on and offstage.
Rommie Tomasini, Marie
At age 10, Rommie Tomasini, a soft-spoken Manhattan fifth grader, is already a four-year Nutcracker veteran with a wealth of onstage memories. After a season as the Bunny in the first act battle scene— “I was very scared of the Mouse King,” she recalls with a smile— and another as a Polichinelle—“It’s dark and kind of hard to see under Mother Ginger’s skirt”—she danced last season as Marie, a role she’s eager to repeat this year. “My favorite part is spinning on the bed. Your eyes are closed, and you’re getting dizzy, but it’s actually fun.” Rommie started ballet when she was 6, following, almost literally, in the footsteps of her older sister. “While I’m in ballet class I clear my mind and only focus on one thing and that’s to dance,” she says. When she’s not dancing or doing homework, Rommie enjoys reading books about ballet, eating crepes with Nutella and going to museums. “This year our class gets to go the American Museum of Natural History and sleep under the whale, so I’m looking forward to that,” she says.
Maximilian Brooking Landegger, The Prince
Maximilian Brooking Landegger, who’s known as Max, was 5 years old when a friend cancelled a play date and changed his life. “My younger sister was going to her ballet class and I thought, ‘Oh no, I have to go watch ballet,’” he recalls. “But when I saw it I realized I wanted to take lessons.” He auditioned for SAB as soon as he turned 6 and never looked back. “Ballet class is completely mind blowing,” says Max, who performed recently as Oliver in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals at NYCB. “I forget about grades or problems that I’m having. And being so energetic and trying my hardest makes me feel good.” This year marks the fifth Nutcracker and second stint as the Prince for the 11-year-old Manhattan fifth grader whose favorite school subjects are English and history. In his spare time Max enjoys going to the ballet and counts Balanchine’s Serenade and Tarantella among his favorites. “I like to jump. So it’s inspirational to watch the dancers jump in Tarantella and think, wow, I hope I can do that one day,” he says. As for his sister, she still dances, and Max looks forward to sitting onstage in the second act and watching her as a Polichinelle.
Philip Henry Duclos, Fritz
“I love this role,” declares Philip Henry Duclos, an angelic-looking 10-year-old known as Henry, who is in his second year as the devilish Fritz. “ It’s really fun to be that kid who’s naughty. It’s fun to act it out.” Though Henry savors almost every Fritz moment, his favorite comes at the very beginning, when he shares an empty stage with Marie. “You’re lying down asleep in Marie’s lap, you peek out, and you see this huge audience with thousands of people. It’s amazing,” he says. A three-year Nutcracker veteran and fourth-year student at SAB, Henry relishes taking ballet class taught by former NYCB dancers Jock Soto and Arch Higgins and particularly enjoys doing pirouettes. “When I see the older dancers turning onstage I love how the turns look, and they’re a lot of fun to do in class,” he says. A Manhattan fifth grader, Henry calls ballet his “priority.” But he also plays the violin, likes to draw and ice skate and enjoys “eating breakfast for dinner, things like French toast, pancakes and eggs.”
Claire Simon, Marie
Like many young girls, Claire Simon, an 11-year-old Manhattan sixth grader, dreamed of what it would be like to be Marie in The Nutcracker. “I always wanted to go up in the sleigh with the reindeer,” she says. After dancing in the party scene for two years, she got her wish this year. Her selection came as a surprise. “At the casting a boy from a higher level at SAB came to get me, and I thought I was in trouble,” she recalls. Instead Dena Abergel, NYCB Children’s Ballet Mistress, greeted her with the good news. Claire spends her days practicing her steps at every opportunity, “even on the subway,” she says. “I can never sit still, and ballet is a disciplined way of moving.” Though she auditioned successfully for SAB when she was 6, she left the following year when her family traveled the world for seven months. “My favorite countries were Greece and Cambodia,” she says. When she isn’t dancing or studying, Claire likes to swim, ice skate and read historical fiction, “especially about World War II.” She also helps look after the family dog, Clovis. “I have to take her out, which I don’t like. But I like her anyway,” she says.
Lleyton Ho, The Prince
Lleyton Ho recalls his excitement the first year he appeared in The Nutcracker in the party scene. “When I was little, the only thing I’d really look forward to at Christmas was watching The Nutcracker on television. The Nutcracker was always a big part of my life,” he says. Last year Lleyton, a 13-year-old seventh grader from Scarsdale, graduated to the role of the Prince, a part he’ll repeat this year. “It’s really special seeing all the professional dancers up close and watching them perform,” he says. Lleyton came to ballet at the age of 8 at the suggestion of his gymnastics instructor. “I discovered I loved ballet more than gymnastics and decided to keep doing it. There’s discipline in ballet but also freedom, which is an unusual combination,” he says. Commuting into Manhattan for ballet means hours in the family car, but Lleyton uses “car time,” as he calls it, to plow through his homework “I’m lucky I don’t get motion sickness,” he says. When summer rolls around, he enjoys sailing, swimming and reading, especially books about soldiers and espionage. “A lot of books I don’t think I’ll like at first I end up liking a lot,” he says.
F. Henry Berlin, Fritz
When F. Henry Berlin was 8 years old, his ice skating instructor suggested he study ballet to improve his flexibility. It turns out ice skating was considerably more helpful to ballet than the other way around, especially with balance. “You’re out there holding your leg up to your ear without a barre, and that’s kind of what we do on ice,” says Henry, an 11-year-old Manhattan fifth grader. “Besides, there’s really no bad part about dancing. If you fall you’re not going to slide and hit the wall.” After a year as a Nutcracker party boy, Henry danced Fritz for the first time last year, a role he’s excited to return to. “The fact that you have a name is nice. People know Fritz. But the great thing about playing Fritz is you get to act really, really devilishly without getting in trouble. That’s fun.” Though he calls ballet his “main focus,” Henry also plays soccer and the violin, takes art classes and likes “the kind of books I can’t stop reading,” like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. “I’ve got The Goblet of Fire on my Kindle. It’s my number one obsession now,” he says.