As seasoned ballet-goers know: and newcomers quickly learn: George Balanchine's The Nutcracker boasts more than its share of exceptional sequences, as spectacular as the Christmas tree that rises to the rafters, as tender as the instant Marie's mother removes her shawl to cover her sleeping daughter.
Given The Nutcracker's fanciful plot, it's no surprise the ballet is bursting with moments to savor. In a nutshell: a little girl receives a toy Nutcracker from her godfather at a Christmas Eve party, falls asleep cradling her new toy and dreams of dancing snowflakes, dastardly mice, true-blue toy soldiers, cavorting candies, frolicking flowers, a Sugarplum Fairy, and a life-size Nutcracker who turns into a prince.
What makes this truly memorable, however, is the pitchperfect confluence of Balanchine's inspired choreography and Tschaikovsky's lilting score.
New York City Ballet's dancers have their favorite moments, too. We recently asked several veteran Nutcracker performers to tell us about one such moment in the variations they perform during the second act, and why that moment is special.
Daniel Ulbricht: Candy Cane
"This is such a thrilling piece even though it's just over a minute long. Candy Cane is literally and figuratively jumping through hoops, and the audience can count along at the end when he jumps through the hoop 12 times in a row. A great place to watch for is in the middle where it looks like he's actually turning within the hoop. It's a little whirlwind turn, then all of a sudden he shoots his foot out. It's almost as if he's playing a little game, but of course the difficulty is that he's doing it with a hoop. If it's done correctly, the dancer will jump up, then jump out, jump up and jump out, almost like he's jumping across a river. The idea is to kind of suspend time for a moment. When he lands, it's like he's being shot out of a cannon."
Tiler Peck: Dewdrop
"I love to turn, so my favorite moment comes after Dewdrop's third entrance (she runs on and off the stage five times). She does a series of complicated turns and at the end, I try to hold the pose as long as I can. I love that moment. It's exhilarating. You can really play with the phrasing to make it completely your own. Each year I try to think of something a little different to do to make the audience hold their breath. I also love the very last entrance where she comes out from the back, then goes straight to the front of the stage. You know you're done when you get to do those steps coming forward and you can just let everything go."
Antonio Carmena: Tea
"This piece is just a minute long, but if I had to pick one special moment, it would be the series of seven big split leaps Tea does near the end. The leaps are a lot of fun, especially because I can play with them according to how fast or slow the music is that day. The audience probably doesn't hear much variation in the tempo of the music, but when you're in the air, you notice even a hair's breadth of difference. I like a fast pace because it makes me more excited to do the jumps. But there's also something fun about the days when the music is slower, and everything goes well, and you feel you can stay in the air a little bit longer."
Abi Stafford: Sugarplum Fairy
"I really enjoy Sugarplum's first solo. I can picture little girls in the audience being enthralled by the music and the costume, and I remember being a young kid and being blown away by how magical it was and how I wanted someday to dance the role. The choreography looks simple, very clean and classical, but it's actually very difficult to do well. It takes a lot of strength and control. It's very easy to find moments that are very musical where you can add your own little flourish. I see Sugarplum as the queen of the land and she's invited Marie and the Prince. She's a benevolent leader, very warm and kind to the children, and she doesn't see herself as above the others."
Lance Chantiles-Wertz: the Nutcracker/ the Prince
"The Prince gets to do a lot of fun things, like go up in the chariot with Marie at the end of the ballet, but the pantomime where he tells a recap of how he and Marie have fought off the Mouse King and saved the land is a really important moment. Every movement in the pantomime has a word that goes with it, which I say in my head as I do it. In the beginning part I say 'Everyone here listen, and I will tell you the story.' Then I mimic the Mouse King running across and how Marie throws her shoe. But every little finger movement explains something. There's a part where the Prince says 'over there': and points. I love it all, but one of my favorite parts is when I'm showing how I fenced the Mouse King and how we killed him. It's a lot of fun to do the pantomime and a real honor to be dancing Mr. Balanchine's choreography. I get a bit of an adrenal rush every time I hear the music playing."
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker will be performed November 27 through January 3. Visit www.nycballet.com.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.