New Year, New Nutcracker
How many works of art are able to capture memory and the passing of time so profoundly on both sides of the stage? “The Nutcracker” has as much importance for the dancers who grow up performing it as it does for the audience members who grow up watching it.
–Gia Kourlas, “New Sugarplum Memories.” NYTimes, December 2014
Track 27: Kaitlyn
My debut as the Sugarplum Fairy with The New York City Ballet fell on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Many of the corps ladies, myself included, had already paraded through the Land of Sweets several dozen times that December, once to the maddeningly off-tempo scream of the theater’s fire alarm for the entirety of the Waltz of the Flowers. (I kept close track of Nutcracker near-disasters that year, willing my first go at the great pas de deux not to be among the most memorable.) Much to my relief, my first performance was uneventful. Peter Martins came backstage to congratulate me with a hug, words of praise, and a twenty-dollar bill, suggesting I buy myself a treat for Christmas. Our laughter revealed mutual relief that evening, but I always dreaded dancing the role, never feeling quite right for the part. My final performance with the New
In the spring of 2014, well into what I now call my “unretirement” phase, I met directors Katie Rose McLaughlin and Joshua William Gelb to discuss my participation in a theatrical reimagining of “A Nutcracker” as retold by Dan O’Neil to the musical rearrangement of Ian Axness. Though I was initially reluctant to commit, I was also eager to participate in the creation of something new. My character, Clara, read a little bit like me: She forfeits a dance career in her late 20s in an attempt to find meaning and fulfillment elsewhere in life.
Clara’s story, however, soon takes a gruesome turn, one that haunts her for the rest of her life. During the holiday season, feeling somewhat directionless (and very drunk), 27 year-old Clara meets a good-looking guy at a Christmas party—enter my partner, Pierre Guilbault—attempts to take him home with her, suffers a terrible car accident, and loses an eye. This was the script’s clever nod to ETA Hoffmann’s Godfather Drosselmeier and his famous eye patch, otherwise absent from the action.
Track 87: Valda
A few days before my first meeting with the legendary Valda Setterfield, I quite coincidentally found her name in my grandmother’s unpublished manuscript. My grandmother had caught a performance of Merce Cunningham’s company in Minneapolis and was entranced by the repertory and dancers, Valda in particular. I mentioned this briefly to Valda when we were introduced, too star-struck to be anything more than awkward. She thanked me graciously and rehearsal began.
I cherished the time I spent with Valda, inspired by her work ethic. She remained engaged, inquisitive, and mindful even as rehearsals ran for hours. As 87 year-old-Clara, she narrated the production, remembering chunks of her past—the car accident, her first love, and her marriage—while providing the audience with context for the scenes and movement as it progressed. Valda always kept her notes close, practicing often but also frequently looking up to observe the others in the room and to place herself within the story. She investigated her character by constantly asking intelligent questions and exploring their many possible answers.
During one of our last rehearsals together, she approached me and thanked me again for the compliment I had given her, telling me she had since taken the time to read about my career. She asked how I had become involved with the new Nutcracker. Unsure of what to say, I responded candidly: “I just choose things that I like to do – that I think are interesting.”
“Oh, I think that’s good,” she said. “That’s what I do, too.”
Four “tracks,” telling the story of Clara at age 7, 27, 57, and 87, would run simultaneously on four separate stages, arranged linearly in the barren warehouse space of the Knockdown Center in Queens. The set design’s dim fogginess evoked a dream’s uncertainty. The staging’s first tableau appropriately depicted the most senior Clara, resting as her past selves slowly surround her in her sleep. They circle her stage, watching her, before dispersing into the space and back in time to where their story begins.
Track 57: Gary (and Lisa)
My first-ever dance partner was none other than the great Gary Chryst. I was six years old, performing for the first time as the “The Littlest Mouse” in my grandmother’s “Nutcracker Fantasy”; he made a guest appearance in the role of Godfather Drosselmeier. We had two very brief (but important!) moments together in the performance. He would grab me as I scampered across the stage, throw me into the air, and pull my mouse tail as I kicked my little legs furiously to escape.
Twenty years later, Gary would play husband to 57-year-old Clara: Lisa Lockwood, who had danced with my mother at American Ballet Theatre. I had not seen Gary since my mouse days in Minneapolis, and in our first rehearsal together, he seemed most surprised at how much taller I had grown since our initial meeting. We shared a good laugh about our new height ratio as we learned a brief duet we would dance together.
I travelled back and forth in time with Gary and Lisa as we spent afternoons together in rehearsal. They had many memories of my mother’s dancing, which I had never seen. Gary also told brief, wonderful stories about my crazy grandmother, and I soon realized he had probably known her better than I ever did.
During our performances of “A Nutcracker,” the audience, offered no chairs, was instead encouraged to wander through the space, and through time, while our tracks unfolded. Our characters also often drifted from stage to stage as if revisiting a moment from the past or briefly inhabiting a future they could not quite comprehend. In one particular instance, 57-year old Clara’s husband finds himself visiting 27 year-old Clara, recalling her image as it was the day they had first met.
Track 7: Lulu
Our performances marked young Lulu’s Nutcracker debut. As 7 year-old Clara, Lulu often haunts her 27 year-old self, appearing once in her vision with a Nutcracker. The elder Clara snatches the Nutcracker from her hand, closing her eyes and swaying from side to side as if remembering steps she once danced. I always loved this moment: I’d close my eyes and imagine the opening steps of the Sugarplum Fairy’s variation, which I would perform a week later in Minneapolis for the 50th anniversary of my grandmother’s production.
The last image in “A Nutcracker” immediately follows Clara’s car accident, as the three other women come to my stage to help me off the floor. We rehearsed this moment more than any other in the show, and I found myself constantly correcting young Lulu’s tendu. Most days she was a good sport about it; one day, understandably exhausted, she rolled her eyes at me as I went to fix her foot. I promptly put her in her place, later asking Gary if I’d been too harsh. He winked. “Oh, your grandmother. She wouldn’t have allowed that either.”
Arguably outdated and at times culturally insensitive, Nutcrackers old and new appear every year like a never-ending nightmare. But they still seem to bring with them a bit of magic, measuring and muddling passing time like Godfather Drosselmeier’s clock. This New Year’s Eve, I revisited, and revised, my old Nutcracker resolution: I’ll never dance another Nutcracker… until next year.