If The Nutcracker music is Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky's Christmas gift to the world, then the George Balanchine ballet is a delicious bonus: a joy to everyone who sees it, and a treasure for everyone who dances it‹especially children.
Each year, 100 students from the School of American Ballet‹50 at a time, in two alternating casts‹take the stage in roles designed just for them.
"Balanchine was able to tap into their capabilities," says Garielle Whittle, New York City Ballet's children's ballet mistress. "He gave them steps that were difficult but which, with work, they could master, raising them to a different level. When they finish, they're much better dancers."
Over the years, such future dance stars as Jennie Somogyi, Christopher d'Amboise, Eliot Feld, and Peter Boal all took turns in The Nutcracker, brandishing toy rifles, mimicking mice, or riding a flying sleigh. Like the current crop of Soldiers, Party Guests, and Polichinelles, they probably played games backstage, planted lipstick kisses under Mother Ginger's skirt, and asked their idols to sign their shoes.
Along the way, they learned discipline and focus‹and how every magical minute on stage is preceded by hours and hours of preparation, practice, and rehearsal.
"When I first saw The Nutcracker and I saw the sleigh going up, I thought, I want to be on that sleigh!" says 11-year-old Anjelica Fellini. "And when I saw the Sugar Plum Fairy, I wanted to be the Sugar Plum Fairy too‹and I knew I couldn't be one unless I started ballet."
Anjelica's Irish step-dancing teacher guided her to SAB, where she enrolled three years ago. She went into The Nutcracker that year as the Bunny, a role typically played by the smallest dancer.
"I thought I'd just hop around the stage," Anjelica says, "but I didn't. Instead, I marched and I pulled the Mouse King's tail, which is a very important part of the ballet, actually. And I had to be very careful not to hit my drum with the stick, because if I did, there'd be a very big noise and that's not a part of the ballet!"
The next two years, Anjelica played Marie, a role she calls "a fantastic great pleasure.…When you're Marie, you're the first person on the stage." She goes on to explain, "You're on until the very last second, when the curtain closes, and you're going up on that sleigh, and they're raising it higher and higher.…Me and my prince, we'd always try to touch the lights."
This year Anjelica plays a Polichinelle, one of the dolls who peek out from under Mother Ginger's skirt. "When I'm dancing, I feel really good," she says. "It's like getting butterflies, but in a good way. And I got to meet Darci Kistler, who teaches my fourth division class. She's the one I saw play the Sugar Plum Fairy. She's really nice!"
Twelve-year-old Mairi McCormick was a Polichinelle in 2004, her first year at SAB. The steps are quick, she says, and there are a lot of balances and sautés to master.
"Some days I have three hours of class and one and a half hours of rehearsal," she says, happily. The Upper Westsider attends the Professional Children's School, which helps. "When my science teacher explained the difference between rotation and revolution, she did a pirouette to help me understand."
This year, as one of SAB's taller, older students, Mairi plays a Hoop, also known as a Candy Cane. "It's really fun backstage," she confides. "Once your makeup is done, you all wait around, which sounds really boring but it's not, because you play fun games like Secret Santa."
No matter the part, each child receives $10 per performance. "I'm not much of a spender," Mairi says. "I bought myself an iPod Nano with my money from last year."
Ghaleb Kayali could probably afford several by now. The dark-eyed 12-year-old has danced a number of roles, including Oliver, the lead in Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals. In The Nutcracker he has danced the roles of Fritz (Marie's high-spirited younger brother) and the Prince, a part he repeats this year.
"The Prince is fun," Ghaleb says. "You get to act more elegant and express yourself more." He particularly likes the long mime solo in the second act, when the Prince describes the adventures that brought him to the Land of the Sweets.
"It's hard being in The Nutcracker," Ghaleb concedes. "Before you audition, you have to know whether you're going to make all the rehearsals. If you miss them, you're not going to know what to do when the big day comes."
Once dress rehearsals start in November, he may miss a day or two of school, so his teachers give him homework in advance. His favorite subject? Math. "Dancing's a lot about counting," Ghaleb explains. "You have to remember those combinations and what's even and odd to go back or front, and you have to know what count that step is on."
Luckily, rhythm runs in his family. His mother was a flamenco dancer; his father plays drums. Ghaleb would like to be a dancer and choreographer; he's already good at signing autographs. "Lots of little girls ask for them," he says. "I've met people from other states who celebrate Christmas by coming to see The Nutcracker."
Katherine Kadlick knows what that's like. At 12, she has seen the Balanchine ballet more times than she can count, and to her, it's still wonderful. "I used to see it every year when I was little, and then I watched it from backstage," says Katherine, who started dancing at age three and came to SAB when she was eight. "I really loved the Snowflakes."
The Spence student danced the roles of Soldier and Angel before graduating to Polichinelle. This year, she's a Hoop. "When I first did Nutcracker, as a Soldier, I just stood for a long time in the big toy cabinet, where all the Soldiers stand, watching," Katherine recalls. "I was afraid that I would trip, but I tried not to think about it and instead think about what I had to do, and it was fun."
Her advice for those who dream of one day dancing in The Nutcracker? "You should always try your hardest and do your best and push yourself," Katherine says. "If you want to be a Hoop, you can be a Hoop!"
Barbara Hoffman edits the New York Post's family pages.