It never fails: When I hear The Nutcracker's overture, it's as if I'm twelve years old again, standing in the wings about to take my first steps onstage. I can feel the weight of my white satin dress and my stiff, sprayed curls hanging down the back of my neck. Around me, party scene girls and boys whisper with excitement while others hum along to Tchaikovsky's famous melody. We're giddy with anticipation, waiting to hear the orchestra play those last two plucky notes so we can say "Ah choo!" and pretend to sneeze. That's the way the music sounded to our young ears. I don't know how that silly tradition started, but I still do it today whether I'm in the audience or in my dressing room preparing for a show.
Talk to any American ballet dancer and he/she will tell you that The Nutcracker is not only a holiday tradition, but an annual event that marks the progression of our development as dancers. For many of us, it was also our first real taste of performing and being part of a production in which the children are valued as much as the professionals. We have fond memories of backstage antics and of the friendships formed during long rehearsal periods and idle time in the theatre. Now, as adults, not much about our Nutcracker experience has changed.
The casting sheet, for example, is always a rush. How many performances will we dance? Who gets opening night? Will we learn a new role? These questions never get old, whether we like to admit it or not. As children, we could almost predict our advancement: Most students start out as Angels in the opening of Act II or as Polichinelles under Mother Ginger's skirt. Then they graduate to party scene or battle scene if their technique and height permit. Ian Hussey, a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, remembers being a party boy his first year. "At that time, there wasn't much of an audition because there were so few boys in the school," he explains, "especially if you were a boy of a certain age. You were automatically in the party scene."
Hussey took a unique step forward the following year when he was chosen to be the Prince in the Company's production. In fact, he danced that role for the next four years and grew so tall that wardrobe had to build him a new costume. "I remember getting really nervous when we had rehearsals with the Company," he admits. "When you're in the school, you come to idolize a lot of the dancers." One of the dancers he idolized became his partner when he danced the role of Cavalier for the first time last year. "It was a tremendous honor to dance with [Principal Dancer] Arantxa Ochoa," Hussey gushes. "I sat on that throne as the Prince and watched the pas de deux so many times; it was really exciting for me to finally walk down that set, so to speak."
Ochoa has quite a different Nutcracker history. Her first time dancing the ballet wasn't until she was seventeen years old at the School of American Ballet in New York. "We don't have a Nutcracker tradition in Spain," she says. "Here, it's part of everybody's childhood. To see the little kids coming to the theatre and they're so excited about the Sugarplum Fairy and the Mouse King...the children make it so special." They also inspire Ochoa's performances; she'll watch the children in party scene to help herself get into character for Act II. And when Ochoa's own son watched her dance the role of Dewdrop last year, Ochoa couldn't find words to describe how she felt. The experience was just magical.
For Company member Laura Bowman, the children's matinee performances are by far the best. The little ones applaud every lift, pirouette, and scene change. "Most people don't like dancing the kids' shows that early in the morning," she says (an 11 a.m. performance usually means the dancers have to be at the theatre by 9 a.m.), "but I feel like they're the most rewarding." As a member of the corps de ballet, Bowman practically lives at the theatre. She dances in almost 30 performances, sometimes doing three shows in one day: "The biggest stress about Nutcracker is having the stamina to get through run after run after run."
Bowman relies on little things to give herself a lift. For example, she'll vary her earrings to match the part she's about to dance. Her Snow jewels have a hint of blue; the ones she wears for Marzipan are "big and bling." She also likes to bake Christmas tree and snowflake cupcakes for the ladies in her dressing room.
Dancers work so hard, and we've been doing a version of The Nutcracker for so long, that just hearing the music in a store can bring about eye rolls and groans. During the month of December, there's little time for us to do our holiday shopping and few free days to spend with family. But the benefit of doing so many performances outweighs these inconveniences. "The more you do it," Ochoa says, "the more you find places where you can play with the character. It's a way of growing as a dancer."
And our rehearsals don't stop once the curtain goes up on opening night. We continue to practice in an effort to perfect the roles we've been given, even if that means working after our morning warm-up class or in between shows.
For dancers, The Nutcracker can be a long and grueling string of shows. Yet this nostalgic holiday tradition never fails to bring out the child in each of us. Year after year we return to the story of Marie and her Nutcracker like a trusty security blanket: It's loved, it's old, and we know it inside and out. But it's also a comfort, a reminder of our early years onstage and the genuine excitement we felt as young performers. As artists, we constantly need to replenish our source of inspiration. While The Nutcracker can be exhausting, it reinforces why we chose to dance in the first place.
Julie Diana is a Principal Dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written for various dance publications.