On a balmy October evening, Dena Abergel, Children’s Ballet Master at New York City Ballet, stands in an airy ballet studio and watches 12-year-old Aaron Plous and 10-year-old Tenzin Niles attentively. Plous and Niles, students at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official school of New York City Ballet, are practicing the intricate pantomime that transforms them from energetic SAB students into the regal Little Prince, the role they’ll perform in alternate performances in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. After demonstrating how the boys should skitter across the stage as they imitate the Mouse King, Abergel has the boys try again as a pianist plays the familiar Tschaikovsky score. “You’re doing really well,” Abergel declares.
Welcome to Nutcracker Preseason, the ten-week build-up to opening night on November 24. The boys have already put in a full day at their respective academic schools and taken after-school ballet classes at SAB before attending their hour-long weekday rehearsal, as do the other students in the cast. On Sunday most of the children’s cast—126 students in all for two casts of 63 that perform in alternate performances—returns for a full day of practice.
“We fit in as much rehearsal as we can so the kids are in good shape by the time we open,” says Abergel, a former dancer with New York City Ballet who is also a member of SAB’s faculty. “With kids, the more repetition the better.”
Just as it’s impossible to imagine The Nutcracker without the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier, it’s inconceivable to think of this iconic ballet without children. Marie Stahlbaum and the Little Prince (who doubles as Herr Drosselmeier’s Nephew/the Nutcracker) are the leading roles for young dancers, but they are joined by a group of children for a party at the Stahlbaum’s home in the first act, then fight alongside Soldiers to defeat the Mouse King and his little Mice, and meet Angels, Candy Canes, and Polichinelles, the children of Mother Ginger, in the second act’s Land of Sweets.
George Balanchine, the legendary co-founder of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, understood the importance of children in The Nutcracker. Having danced the role of the Little Prince with Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet, Balanchine created more children’s roles for his Nutcracker than for any other ballet he made. And well he could. By the time he choreographed his holiday masterpiece in 1954, SAB was 20 years old and turning out polished young dancers primed for the big stage.
With just over 300 students, the SAB Children’s Division still supplies every child you see in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. How do the children make the leap from SAB classroom to NYCB stage?
The process begins each September when students enrolled in SAB’s Winter Term are invited to attend casting days organized by Abergel and Associate Children’s Ballet Master Arch Higgins, a former NYCB Soloist and current SAB faculty member. Grouped according to their level at the School, the students are given steps from a scene so the ballet masters can see how the children look as a group and who fits best with the steps.
Size determines much of the casting. The children must fit into existing costumes. And no dancer should tower over the others. Party Scene kids, who attend the Stahlbaum holiday party in the first act, and Angels, who welcome guests to the Land of Sweets in the second act, are always small. Polichinelles, who dance in the second act with Mother Ginger, need to slip under Mother Ginger’s capacious skirt. Only with Soldiers who battle Mice and the Candy Canes who dance in the second act can heights vary. “It can be heartbreaking for the tall girls,” says Abergel. “Best for the role doesn’t always mean the best ballet dancer in the cast. A lot is based on who is the right size for that role specifically.”
The two ballet masters usually have candidates in mind for the Little Prince and Marie, but the final decision comes after watching the dancers on casting day. As Abergel explains, “We put our choices for the Prince, Marie, and Fritz together and switch them around to make sure they look good as a group. We base a lot on the energy and who we think will work well together.”
Though both Plous and Niles are new to the role of the Prince this year, they’re no strangers to the NYCB stage. An SAB student since he was six, Plous has performed in The Nutcracker Party Scene and as Fritz, along with roles in La Sylphide, Scènes de Ballet, and Swan Lake. Niles, who enrolled after auditioning for SAB at age eight, was a Party Scene boy last year.
Prep work for their role extends well beyond the rehearsal studio. The Prince’s big moment is the elaborate pantomime he performs for the Sugarplum Fairy, explaining how he and Marie battled the dastardly Mouse King. To learn it, the boys memorize a narrative that corresponds to each step and review it every night before they go to sleep. “You also practice it in the mirror and play with it during the day so you not only know what you’re supposed to do but what you want to express,” says Plous.
Like most SAB students, the two boys enjoy other interests besides ballet. Plous plays club soccer, and Niles studies Indian dance and plays volleyball. But both agree their ballet studies have helped them excel in sports and even the classroom. As Niles explains, “It takes time to learn a step, but if you work at it, you can definitely master it. You can apply that same concept to spelling words and math problems.”
After five years in her current position, Abergel still marvels at Balanchine’s genius for creating steps that manage to impart The Nutcracker story, suit the abilities of young dancers, and teach performance skills and stagecraft. “The youngest, the Angels, are mostly eight and nine years old, and all they do is glide. But they learn how to count to music, create formations, make diagonals, and cross the stage. As they move on to the Party Scene, they’re acting and doing social dance, learning polkas and curtsies. By the time they become Polichinelles, the girls are 10 or 11 and have had a good amount of training. They know ballet steps like échappés and changements and can put what they know to good use on stage.”
A small percentage of the Nutcracker children will move up to SAB’s Intermediate and Advanced divisions, which are filled with talented dancers recruited from around the world. Historically, 15 percent of the City Ballet company started in SAB’s Children’s Division. But whether they become dancers or doctors, Abergel points out that The Nutcracker teaches young performers important lessons for life—discipline, hard work and how to follow instructions, among them. “And one hopes, they become ballet fans,” she says.