From the 144 jingle bells that sing out on each Candy Cane costume to the eye-popping Christmas tree that soars to a height of 41 feet, there’s no ballet in the world quite like George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.
A big reason Balanchine’s 1954 holiday masterpiece is unique among the 465 works he created is the sheer number of children who fill the theater, both in the audience and onstage. A child dancer himself with the Maryinsky Ballet, Balanchine stocked his Nutcracker with 63 children’s roles. Two casts of young dancers aged 8 to 12 from the School of American Ballet appear in alternate performances.
What’s it like to perform in front of nearly 3,000 people every night when you’re still doing homework? We talked with four young dancers about life onstage and off during Nutcracker season.
Ines Gout, Marie
At age 12, Ines Gout has already danced children’s roles in six NYCB ballets including Swan Lake, La Sylphide, and Mozartiana. But she doesn’t hesitate when asked her favorite. “I love The Nutcracker. It feels like a big party because there are so many children performing,” says the bubbly Manhattan seventh grader. During her first year performing in The Nutcracker as an Angel in 2016, she savored the “full backstage experience,” putting on make-up, styling her hair, and being with her friends. Watching the ballet unfold up close, she dreamed of becoming Marie one day. “I was shocked but really excited when I got the role,” she says. With a battery of rehearsals and ballet classes, the role of Marie becomes a way of life for a young performer. “When I get home, I go through everything in my head in the order we do it,” says Ines, who likes to hang out with friends, eat sushi, and shop when she has a spare moment. The biggest challenge? Balancing the demands of ballet and homework (Ines likes literature and writing opinion pieces). “It’s a little stressful, but it’s worth it,” she says.
Fiona Daly, Marie
When Fiona Daly was in the first grade as a homeschooled student in Florida, New York, she was told to choose an instrument and a sport. She selected the drums and ballet. “I just liked ballet the way little girls do,” says Fiona, who had never seen a performance. That quickly changed. Now a 12-year-old seventh grader, Fiona has danced children’s roles in seven NYCB ballets including The Sleeping Beauty, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Coppelia. And she has fond memories of her time as an Angel and a Polichinelle in The Nutcracker. “There are little kiss marks for good luck on Mother Ginger’s skirt from the girls,” she says. Learning the role of Marie proved a magical experience for Fiona. “Everybody knows The Nutcracker, and it’s great to be part of something that big,” she says. When she isn’t rehearsing and studying (favorite subjects: art and music), Fiona likes to design and sew doll clothes. Her current project? Creating Nutcracker costumes for her Barbies, inspired by Karinska’s iconic NYCB designs, naturally.
Tenzin Niles, The Nutcracker Prince
“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on stage,” declares 11-year-old Tenzin Niles of playing the Prince in The Nutcracker last year. “It’s really special in the second act when you’re up in the sleigh and you wave, and you can see little children in the audience waving back at you.” Thrilled to perform his favorite role for a second season, the soft-spoken Manhattan sixth grader looks forward to building on what he learned. That means making his moves “more solid and prince-like,” he says, and adding more facial expressions. As someone who loved movement from the time he was “a very small human being,” Tenzin started with classical Indian dance, enrolled in SAB at eight, and sees professional dance in his future, though not necessarily ballet. In the meantime, he enjoys social studies in school, likes “a good, funny, family rom-com,” and counts Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime as a favorite book. “I think of myself as a steady kid, and I think the main reason is that I do ballet,” he says.
Athan Sporek, The Nutcracker Prince
A student at SAB since he was six, 11-year-old Athan Sporek has appeared with NYCB in Romeo + Juliet, La Sylphide, and as Fritz in The Nutcracker, a part he relished. “It’s a really rambunctious role, and I tend to be rambunctious in real life,” he says. Along the way, the energetic Brooklyn sixth grader took a break from ballet to perform on Broadway as Gavroche in Les Misérables and Young Calogero in A Bronx Tale. What did he learn? “I feel you can get deeper into the role when you dance than when you sing and act because you can express how you feel through body movement.” As the Prince, Athan is eager to perform the elaborate pantomime where he recounts the battle with the dastardly mice. “It summarizes what happened in the first act and it’s very expressive. When I get bored in school, I go over it in my head,” he says. For now, Athan looks forward to more dancing. “I love performing. I love that you can entertain the audience. And I love hearing people clap,” he says.
Terry Trucco writes frequently on the arts and travel.