Most dancers have mixed feelings about The Nutcracker. On the one hand, we are grateful for it. It is a cash cow that funds our more experimental programs throughout the rest of the year. (People tend not to come out in droves to see Robbins’s Goldberg Variations or Balanchine’s Episodes.) It is also the first ballet that lots of us saw, and it propelled so many of us to study classical dance—myself included. (I remember watching the little girls in the Party Scene at a New Jersey Ballet Company performance at the Papermill Playhouse when I was 11 and wanting to be up there so badly!) And it is nice to play to a larger audience than we normally do, and to see the children dancing in the aisles during the matinees is absolutely adorable.
On the other hand, we at City Ballet are very spoiled in that we perform a huge variety of ballets over the course of the year, with three or four different pieces going every night. It is hard work but it is never boring, whereas fifty shows of the Waltz of the Flowers can feel like Sartre’s No Exit. Days blend together, one specific group of muscles becomes overworked, the chance overhearing
The Nutcracker experience evolves quite a bit for each dancer over the course his/her career. For apprentice women it is akin to a sorority hazing ritual. It is hard, repetitive dancing in every single show. When I first got in I had three roles: I was cast as a Parent in half the shows, and as a Snowflake and a Flower in all of them. (Shorter women get a few more options and can be in the Chinese and Spanish corps too.) It was maddeningly exhausting—physically and mentally—but it also increased my stamina and built up my strength in a relatively short period of time. (Although, the repetition can also cause stress fractures and tendonitis in young dancers.) The Nutcracker is great training ground for spatial and musical awareness (we have several different guest conductors during this period, making for more radical fluctuations in tempi). The Nutcracker also helps to integrate apprentices into the fabric of the company; more senior dancers will not hesitate to correct younger dancers’ spacing, etc. during such a long run!
Also, fifty shows of the same exact thing forces rookie ballerinas to become very comfortable on stage, and it gives them time to perfect their buns and stage makeup. It is always fun to watch as dancers who begin the Nutcracker run looking like bedraggled raccoons (too much eyeliner, not enough hairspray) blossom into swans by the time the Winter Season rolls around—the application of gargantuan false eyelashes having been mastered; the Balanchine bun finally slick and automatic. For the apprentice men the experience is altogether easier. There are more of them than there are dancing roles and so they share Parent, Mice, and Spanish corps duties in a much more lax rotation.
For senior dancers the Nutcracker is an entirely different animal. Principal women tend to cycle through only two roles—Sugarplum and Dewdrop—while soloists and senior corps members cycle through a few more: Drosselmeier, Arabian, lead Candy Cane, Spanish, Chinese, Demi-Flowers, Host, and Hostess. Principal men really make out well during the Nutcracker. Most of them only dance the Cavalier (who doesn’t have a solo like the Sugarplum Fairy, and who doesn’t even enter the production until the last 10 minutes) and spend much of their time freelancing all over the country at smaller ballet companies and schools where men are in scarce supply. For them the Nutcracker pays very well indeed!
Between the novice and senior Nutcracker experiences there is a lot of variation. Because there are so many shows and so many of the principals leave for gigs, it is a season of opportunity for many people. Corps members will be tested in a slew of principal roles, and every year there is one matinee in which every single principal part will be a debut. For both men and women, the more years of Nutcrackers one does, the lighter one’s schedule gets; and it also becomes more specialized. Two women in my dressing room perform in just one particular vignette, and that is not uncommon. One of them is always in the Marzipan dance—either as the lead or in the corps—and the other is always in the Waltz of the Flowers—either as a Demi or as the Dewdrop. Some of the taller men don’t get to dance at all during the Nutcracker season—they rotate between Parent, Mouse King and Mother Ginger duties.
I happen to really enjoy my current trio of Nutcracker roles: for the past few years I have alternated between Arabian, lead Spanish, and Hostess. Unfortunately, I strained my calf during the rehearsal period a few weeks ago and can only do Hostess this time around because it is in high heels and not pointe shoes. Although I am happy that I can still perform while I recover (during the regular season there would not likely be anything I could do), I am very sad to miss dancing the Arabian (Coffee) solo. It is one of my absolute favorite roles, and probably my oldest. I started dancing it in my first year of Nutcracker—often doing both parents and snow beforehand—and I feel like it fits my body so well.
The Arabian solo has also kept me relatively sane over the years—it allows for the most artistic freedom of all the dancing roles in the Nutcracker! There are suggested arms and heads, but dancers are free to do whatever they like with their upper bodies as long as their legs do the correct steps. But even the legs have some liberty—one can choose which leg to use for most steps, and choose croisé or éffacé angles for a lot of the steps (positions closed off or open to the audience). Also, the Arabian dancer wears finger cymbals and can ding them whenever she likes throughout her solo (within reason, you get in trouble if you ding on every step!). Having the finger cymbals is really fun for me; it is a treat to be a part of the orchestra for once. Also, my father and brother are both drummers and it is the one time of the year when I too can claim to be in the percussion section!
Maybe I shouldn’t confess this, but since I am so comfortable in Arabian at this point I tend to treat it a little like improv. I will simply surprise myself onstage, making up arms and accents as I go, which is really freeing. At times I will consciously try to do a pastiche of someone—like Norma Desmond, Cyd Charisse, or even Beyoncé! Impersonations are especially fun for us backstage; the Mother Ginger portrayer will often have an audience of his peers in the wings attempting to guess his references. Luckily for me this year, the Party Scene roles are also wide open to interpretation. The Host, Hostess, and especially Drosselmeier can really make what they want out of their characters. I will post more about that and other insider Nutcracker secrets as the run progresses.