Balanchine took children very seriously: he realized their potential as future dancers: and choreographed seriously for them. But he also knew that the magic of The Nutcracker was infectious and that children would become as enchanted with dancing the ballet as they were with watching it. After all, dancing in grand theatrical productions as a young student at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg kick started the choreographer's ride to genius.
At the School of American Ballet, the students dream of landing a role in The Nutcracker: perhaps as an Angel, a Soldier, a party guest, a Mouse, or a Candy Cane. When cast, they are rehearsed for two months by NYCB's Children's Ballet Master, Garielle Whittle. Two alternating casts of children will perform during The Nutcracker season and they take to their roles with the same gusto as the adult company dancers and enjoy the spontaneous thrills of dancing on the same stage.
As a toddler, Victoria Agrifolio had a burning desire to dance in The Nutcracker. "I wanted to be one of those children with so many people watching," says Agrifolio, now 12 years old. "The most exciting thing was seeing all those principal dancers up there and knowing that the children were up there with them." Agrifolio, having danced one of Mother Ginger's Polichinelles in 2006, now performs as one of the Candy Canes. That dance: a particularly coveted section that signals a student's movement up the ladder of promotion: is set to the exhilarating Russian trepak music. The choreography demands tricky allegro steps that build in intensity as the music builds in volume. "I love the feeling of getting into the costume," she says. "You know it's your turn and when you come onstage, you see all those people out there in the audience. The adrenaline is going and it's amazing."
As a choreographer, Balanchine was famous for his genius in creating stage patterns that flowed from diagonals to parallel lines to circles. The children's dances in The Nutcracker give the young performers an early education in how to gauge a formation so that lines aren't crooked or circles aren't misshapen. That means keeping a keen eye directly on the person in the front or to the side and knowing when the music dictates a change in course.
At the beginning of Act II in The Land of Sweets, the tiny Angels are the sole cast members on stage. "When the curtain opens, the audience gasps," says 11-year-old Lyra Katzman. The Angels have to look like they are skimming, rather than bouncing, across the floor as they execute the deceivingly complex staging. "It took a lot of practice to get the step right: to look like you were gliding," says Katzman, who cites the bending of the knees as the real trick in creating the illusion. The effect is like that of the Russian character dancers who whiz across the floor in floor-length costumes.
For the boys, the most pivotal part is really three roles in one: Drosselmeier's nephew, the Nutcracker and the handsome Prince. Joshua Shutkind danced the multi- faceted part last year for the first time and repeats it this season. "As Drosselmeier's nephew, I am a polite young boy who works with his Uncle to make all these inventions," says Shutkind with some Stanislavskian authority. "Then I turn into the Nutcracker and lead the fight against the mice. Then I turn into the Prince, where I have to hold my chest high and act like I'm the leader of the world."
Like many of the students, Shutkind finds working with the Tschaikovsky score fascinating. "The counts in The Nutcracker can range from fours to sixes to eights," says Shutkind, who also studies the saxophone. "The melodies are always changing. That's what makes The Nutcracker music so beautiful."
Identical twins Betsy and Caryn Levine also adore the music and choreography, and consider The Nutcracker a cherished annual ritual. They will perform as Polichinelles this year after playing Mice and Soldiers in previous years. "I remember seeing it every year with Mom and Dad," says Betsy Levine. "I especially love Hot Chocolate, Coffee, and Dewdrop in Waltz of the Flowers." As a sister team, they have the advantage of drilling their choreography together at home.
For the young cast members, the excitement of dancing in The Nutcracker is huge. "My first performance I swear I almost fainted, because performing in front of 2000 people takes a lot more than you think," says Shutkind. "It's really amazing because the anxiety you get beforehand just washes away, it's in your body and you know what you have to do."
For Nutcracker tickets and further information, visit New York City Ballet.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.