This post originally appeared on ThirdAge.com. The readers at that site are largely uninitiated when it comes to the dance world, but I thought you insiders here at DanceArt.com would enjoy my ballerina's eye view of the holiday ballet we all love and know so well. Feel free to add some "Nutcracker" memories of your own in the comment section!
Warmest holiday wishes,
"The Nutcracker" season is in full swing all across the country as ballet's biggest box office draw once again delights young and old alike. Chances are you'll be in the audience at a performance near you, perhaps with the grandchildren in tow. Yet while you and yours are enjoying the enduring charm of the holiday classic, those of us who dance in or direct a production are dealing with plenty of artistic and technical challenges. And for all of us in the ballet world, myriad visions of Sugar Plums past dance in our heads when we bring the magical story to life for another annual run. Here is an insider's peek at what can happen behind the scenes and on stage:
An All-Pointes Bulletin
Before the curtain rises, the bevy of ballerinas who will dance sur les pointes are inevitably obsessed with putting on their shoes. A dancer who is cursed with a toe that's longer than the rest may be taping the offending digit to make her pointe work as bearable as possible. Another dancer who is blessed with the coveted "square toes" may be slipping on her shoes with no tape or padding. A third dancer may be squirting glue into the boxes of shoes that need stiffening. A fourth girl may be roughing up the soles of her shoes with a rasp. And all of them will be tying their satin ribbons with care so they don't lose a shoe on stage. Some dancers sew the knots while others use a tape product called "Knot Keepers," or just plain Scotch tape.
Snow Gets In Our Eyes – And Underfoot
The "Waltz of the Snowflakes" is a guaranteed crowd pleaser with the corps de ballet in romantic length white tutus twirling and bounding to one of Tchaikovsky's most glorious pieces of music. In most versions, snow begins to fall so that the paper flakes catch the light and add to the beauty of the scene. However, the faux flakes can be treacherous for the dancers. Most of us have had them get caught on our false eyelashes and in our eyes. Some of us have ended up with a mouthful of them and all of us know the fear of dancing on a stage that becomes increasingly slippery. These days, the snow usually comes from cages that are rotated by remote control. However, years ago we used "snow bags" that were prone to ripping and dumping the entire contents at once. I was once the hapless Snowflake who was kneeling right under one of the bags when that happened. I looked like an instant snow statue but I managed to get up and dance the next phrase without missing a beat!
Due to Technical Difficulties
The snow, of course, is not the only magical effect in "The Nutcracker" that can go awry. The tree may refuse to "grow," Clara's bed may get stuck en route to the Land of the Snow, the recorded music may develop hiccups, and the sleigh may never take flight for Clara's journey home from the Land of the Sweets. Topping all of that, the lights we once rented to amp up the aging light board at a local high school proved too much for the circuitry and started a fire that soon had the curtains in a blaze. We were in the middle of the "Lull-a-Bye" sequence in the "Party Scene." I, in the role of Frau Stahlbaum, was hard pressed to get my well-rehearsed and highly disciplined baby ballerinas to stop dancing and head for the exit! End of story, the audience trooped out into the snow, the "techies" doused the flames, everybody came back into the theatre, and the show went on.
Quick Change Artists
The grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier is so demanding and "breathy" – our term for dances that leave us gasping for air – that the ballerina performs only that role in almost all productions. However, the Cavalier is often pressed into service as the Snow Queen's partner and sometimes also dances other male variations such as The Solider Doll and the Russian Trepak Dancer. He's not the only one who dances multiple roles, though. Members of the corps de ballet often dash off the stage to change costumes. In one production, I was the Chocolate Matador charged with struggling into slim satin pants and a top that had to be hooked in the back. Another time I wore red boots for the Trepak and then I had to put my pointe shoes on very quickly for "The Waltz of the Flowers." I've also been the Chinese Dancer in a get-up with tiny frog closures, the Spanish Dancer with castanets and a fringe-y shawl that would get tangled in my mantilla comb, and the Arabian Dancer complete with finger cymbals and a belly dancer costume that nearly drove me to a bout with anorexia.
Little Girls, Little Girls
Like Miss Hannigan, the head of the orphanage in "Annie" who sings "Little girls, little girls, everywhere I turn I can see them," the adult dancers in "The Nutcracker" are surrounded by children. We're a lot more sanguine about this than the crotchety Miss Hannigan, but coping with all those kids does take some patience and know-how. There's the weepy Polichinelle who has stage fright and doesn't want to get under Mother Ginger's skirt for her entrance. There's the miffed 11-year-old who was a diminutive Clara the previous season but who has grown a foot and thus been relegated to the role of a Party Scene Boy. There's the Little White Mouse, all of five years old, who is wearing a unitard and suddenly has to go to the bathroom minutes before her musical cue. Yet the youngsters are so adorable and so integral to the experience that it's all worthwhile in the end. Caitlin Driscoll, a former student of mine who is now a successful married businesswoman in her thirties, alerted me to a blog she just posted about her "Nutcracker" memories after she came across photo of herself as an 8-year-old Angel: "The second I held it I felt what it was like to be on that stage. The music pouring out around me, the theater full, my eyes staring at the floor, "don't mess up, don't mess up, don't mess up" . . . It was decades ago, but when I walk into a store in December and hear the familiar soundtrack of the Nutcracker suite, I still remember every minute of it."
Thank you, Caitlin, for reminding me that the real magic of "The Nutcracker" is the way this timeless tradition touches the hearts of those who are lucky enough dance and those who are lucky enough to watch as well. Happy holidays to one and all!
Sondra Forsyth, Senior Editor at www.ThirdAge.com, is the Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City. This holiday season, please consider giving the gift of dance to the needy children served by Ballet Ambassadors. Your donation is tax deductable. Here is the easy online donation page: http://www.active.com/donate/balletambassadors. Thank you from all of us at Ballet Ambassadors and from the thousands of youngsters who will benefit from your generosity. No amount is too small to make a difference. Happy Holidays to one and all!