Couples whispering in British accents. Unhappy wives flirting on the sly with various men. A tipsy maid trying to serve drinks and a snoring grandmother slumped on the couch. It could be a popular television drama, or the Party Scene in Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. "We create different silly scenarios to keep the acting fresh for every show," says Company Member Kelsey Hellebuyck.
This year, Pennsylvania Ballet presents 24 performances of The Nutcracker. Most Company dancers will have at least one role in each performance and will repeat the same choreography day after day for three weeks. This schedule might seem grueling, but Pennsylvania Ballet dancers have been doing versions of this holiday classic since they were children. For them, The Nutcracker is synonymous with December. And it never gets old.
TIME TO EXPLORE
As opposed to dancing just a handful of performances every few months, The Nutcracker gives dancers ample time to try new approaches. "Getting to be onstage so much, you develop a familiarity and ease with it," says Soloist Evelyn Kocak. "If you have 20 shows of demi-flowers, you can use each performance to do something different." Some days Kocak thinks about what she wants to do with her hands; other times she focuses on how she is using her eyes. "You can explore those things that you wouldn't normally get to think about as much."
Even if they've performed a role hundreds of times, dancers try not to let themselves get too comfortable. They strive for bigger jumps, sharper turns, and more precise footwork, especially in a Balanchine ballet where the style demands technical risk and nuanced musicality. And there is always room for artistic interpretation. "In a part like Hoops, there are so many accents and embellishments that you can play with," says Soloist Alexander Peters. "You can make it really different each time but still stay within the framework of the choreography." Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron watches from the pit to meld the music with what's happening onstage, allowing dancers to linger through a phrase, hold a balance, or go for more pirouettes. They can take chances and trust that the music will be with them.
Yet sometimes the exploration happens offstage, in preparation for a performance. Some dancers break from their routine and try a new warm-up, wear bolder earrings, or add a few extra sparkles to their hair or skin. Peters found himself wearing more and more extravagant makeup last year when he danced the role of Tea more than 18 times. "By the end of the run, it got a little bit out of control," he admits. "But you find ways to make things fun."
NEW ROLES, NEW CHALLENGES
Many dancers are taking on new roles this year due to the refreshed casting choices of Artistic Director Angel Corella. Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley is thrilled to be adding Coffee to her repertoire. "In all my years of doing The Nutcracker since I was a kid, I've done every single part in some form except for Arabian [Coffee]," she says. "To actually get a new part in Nutcracker after you have been doing it your entire life is so rare. It's really exciting!" Fadeley has watched dancers perform the part for years, but she admits that doing it is a much different experience. "You're trying to be mysterious and quiet but at the same time doing big jumps and landing them in the same tone," she says. "The walking with flexed feet and bent knees also takes a lot of pressure in your legs and calves. It's challenging, but so nice to have something new to work on."
Some corps dancers, like Hellebuyck, have been asked to swap spots in Snow and Flowers. Once Snowflake 9 and now Snowflake 5, she must reverse the steps and spacing. "I've had the same spots for years and now all of a sudden I'm on the opposite side of the stage," she says. "It's a way of keeping it fresh and yet it can be sort of disorienting."
New roles span the roster, and Peters will be dancing the role of Cavalier for the first time. "I'm very short so I don't get to tackle a pas de deux very often," he says. "It's making me more versatile, working on something that might not necessarily be an obvious strength." Kocak too will be making a debut in the Grand Pas de Deux. In addition to her usual roles, Kocak has been added back into to the Snow Scene and given three new opportunities: Lead Marzipan, Dewdrop, and The Sugarplum Fairy. "This year is all pretty fresh for me," says Kocak. "Dewdrop is the dream part I've wanted to dance for years."
MAINTAINING THE ENERGY
While Kocak has never carried such a heavy load, she insists that it won't be as hard as roles in other full-length productions. "Something like "Snow," even though it's so demanding, it's over so fast. The Nutcracker doesn't wear on you in the same way as it would be to do The Sleeping Beauty for a month." Even so, Kocak plans to take one show at a time with lots of post-performance ice baths. "I put a green homeopathic clay on my calves, wrap them in Saran Wrap, and then sleep like that," she says. "It brings down the inflammation and really helps."
Peters also takes an ice bath (which he describes as "10-15 minutes of pure terror") each week to refresh his muscles. Fadeley relies on physical therapy to keep herself going so that she can give 100 percent onstage in every show. "I won't be able to dance if I don't have that daily tune-up," she says. "Sometimes I just go in there for five minutes and ask them to pull my ankles out. Even that little bit helps." Principal Brooke Moore takes a quick nap before the performance and takes Vitamin B gummies for an added boost of energy. Hellebuyck turns to fragrance for a way to refresh. "When I need a pick-me-up, I pull out my favorite perfume and give it a spritz or seven," she says.
In the end, it's the chance to perform for so many children that inspires Pennsylvania Ballet dancers to make magic onstage. "It would be easy to get stuck in a routine, thinking about what you have to do to get through 20 more shows," says Peters. "But I always remind myself that there are people out there who are really excited to see it." The Nutcracker was the first ballet Peters ever saw, and it made him want to be a dancer. "If I perform my best, maybe I could inspire another kid to pursue this dream. That really keeps me going."