Bringing the Characters to Life: Meet the Dancers of NYCB's The Nutcracker

Classic Arts Features   Bringing the Characters to Life: Meet the Dancers of NYCB's The Nutcracker
Few ballets boast as many iconic moments as George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Seven members of the cast discuss their roles in The Nutcracker and share their insights into Balanchine's emblematic holiday ballet.


Gigantic mice battle life-size toy soldiers. Candy Canes jump through hoops. And when Mother Ginger coyly lifts her satin skirt, eight dancing Polichinelles scamper onto the stage. Audience members know the thrill of watching a glamorous Sugarplum Fairy pirouette into the arms of her Cavalier or seeing Dewdrop leap through lines of waltzing flowers. But what is it like to perform those roles? How does one prepare to be Herr Drosselmeier or a mysterious veiled temptress? And how does it feel to dance through a snowstorm?


Mary Elizabeth Sell—Snowflake
“I’ve been dancing ‘Snow’ for six years, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite pieces. It’s so whimsical! It starts off very delicate and soft. Even the actual snowflakes falling onstage are soft. Then it builds to big jumps, big music and lots of snow, and our excitement keeps building as we dance it. I don’t think about the snow much while it’s falling, although sometimes it gets in our eyes and mouths. It’s not too slippery, and it really enhances the act of performing. As we’re dancing we get caught up in this whirlwind, and we’re just contained in it onstage. I’d love for the audience to notice the patterns and shapes that the dancers make as a group. They’re complete genius—there’s a simplicity to them, but they’re so beautiful. Even the patterns our feet make in the snow on the ground are really wonderful.”

Vincent Paradiso—Herr Drosselmeier
“Last season was my first year as Herr Drosselmeier, and I loved it. My idea was to take the role to a younger place. What I thought about were the two uncles I had growing up who would show up at holiday parties. One was kind of scary and the other was the younger, cooler one. I figured if I acted old and scary the kids would not be pulling on my jacket wanting me to do magic tricks for them, so I tried to make the character younger, gentler and “cooler.” My inspiration was Karl Lagerfeld. He has this young, fun energy, and dresses all in black with gloves—very eccentric. My buddy took a picture of me all done up as Drosselmeier and put it next to a picture of Karl Lagerfeld. The similarity was hysterical. I always look forward to the moment in Act I when I make the magic happen before the tree grows. I’m behind the scrim so it’s like I’m disconnected from the audience. As long as I make sure I’m off the stage at the right time, I can play with the timing of my movement a bit. It’s ever flowing and different each night.”

Georgina Pazcoguin—Coffee
“The first time I performed ‘Coffee’ was on my birthday, so the role was like a present. I like that it’s the mood-changer in Act II. There’s a character, and she’s sultry, so there’s a lot to work with. And the choreography has a lot of jumps, so the variation has ebbs and flows. I like to do the jumps big. It’s my way of making the variation interesting for the audience and for me. Putting on the costume really puts me into character. I always rehearse the turns with a sweater hanging around my waist to simulate the costume’s skirt. The extra drag affects how you turn. The costume also shows full midriff, and I can sometimes feel a little self-conscious. But luckily when I hear the music that thought goes away. I like being out there all by myself. If I make a mistake I can finesse it, and nobody’s going to know, well except Rosemary [Rosemary Dunleavy, Ballet Mistress] and Peter [Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief]. I feel a certain confidence in that. And I have no problem taking center stage.”

Andrew Scordato—Mother Ginger
“In the Corps I do a lot of dancing, so it’s kind of fun once a year to throw on a wig and strap on a pair of stilts. The dress is 80 pounds, resting on my shoulders like a harness. But when you do shoulder sits with girls all the time, an 80 pound dress is nothing special. To get into the costume, two guys get on either side of the dress. While they hold it up, I crawl under it and come up in the middle. It’s like popping out of a cake, I guess. I always try to mix it up and do different things with the role each night. I think my favorite moment is at the end when I’m leaving the stage and the audience is clapping for the kids. But I act like they’re clapping for me, so I’m very humble, very ‘Oh, stop, don’t clap for me!’ The only thing that scares me is that I might step on a kid. I try to meet them before the season begins and learn their names so they trust me. I grew up doing The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet and saw some awesome Mother Gingers. I never imagined myself in that dress one day, but it happened. And it’s fun.”

Sterling Hyltin—Dewdrop
“It’s really exhilarating to dance Dewdrop. I have five entrances and I have to pace myself. It’s what we like to call a “puffy” part, where you’re breathing really hard. Each entrance builds. The dance is like a flower. It starts with a bud and by the end it’s in full bloom. The adjectives light and ethereal come to mind when I think of the costume. It weighs next to nothing, and I feel like I’m putting on a leaf. There’s no excuse to not jump high in that costume, and there are many big jumps in Dewdrop. I like to jump so that’s probably my favorite aspect of the role. I do have a certain trepidation with the role because in my debut five years ago I fell flat on my face in my second entrance. I went to do a pas de chat, and somehow my leg flew out from under me, and I was flat on the ground. I remember thinking, ‘why is the floor so close to my face?’ But I popped up, and after that I wasn’t nervous at all. Once you fall there’s this weight lifted off of you. You know it can’t get any worse. My next entrance was the really difficult one with a lot of turns, and I think that was probably the best I’ve ever done those turns in my life!”

Colby Clark—The Nutcracker Prince
“I started watching The Nutcracker because my older sister danced in it. That made me want to do ballet, and after doing it a bit I thought it would be awesome to be in The Nutcracker, so I auditioned. I did Fritz for two years and did the Nutcracker Prince for the first time last year. I really like the pantomime section when the Prince tells his story. There’s a dialogue that begins ‘If you will all listen, then I will tell you everything.’ And then I show how I fought the Mouse King and called my soldiers and how Marie threw her shoe. I really like all that stuff. I think it’s fun watching the dancers when Marie and I are seated for Act II. It’s like reading a book over and over. You see new things you didn’t see before. I like it all, but I really love the Candy Cane dance with all the jumps. My goal for this year is just to make everything better. Ms. Whittle [Garielle Whittle, Children’s Ballet Master] tells us never to be too comfortable onstage. We should look comfortable to the audience, but push ourselves 150 percent all the time.”

Megan Fairchild—Sugarplum Fairy
“I’ve been in a Nutcracker every year since I was nine. I’m from Utah and performed all the children’s roles with Ballet West. My brother [Principal Dancer Robert Fairchild] and I even did Clara and Fritz. So The Nutcracker is very close to my heart, and it was a big deal when I first got to dance Sugarplum Fairy. I was 19 and felt overwhelmed. But we do it every December, and Sugarplum actually helped me get over my nerves about performing in general. You do the same pas de deux over and over and definitely get comfortable. Now I enjoy it. I like that the Sugarplum Fairy is so special that she needs two dresses for one night. I love the green tutu. It’s one of the comfiest costumes I have, and I feel very free and very much myself in it. The Sugarplum Fairy feels like a very giving role. It’s Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! I genuinely feel like I’m giving my well wishes to the audience. I also enjoy sharing the stage with the kids. Whenever I dance, I like to look onstage at the people I’m dancing with. It calms me down. So I look at the angels a lot and smile at them, and they calm me down before my pirouettes.”


Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel

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