"Visions of sugarplums..."
Just hearing a few notes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker brings back memories as a child of weekend rehearsals, tech rehearsals on stage with an actual orchestra in the pit, and New York City Ballet prima ballerinas warming up in the wings with layer upon layer of wool to keep their stick-figure bodies warm. As most dancers can remember, every October would be auditions for the coveted parts in the production of the holiday dance tradition. Every ballet school in the country has their own version of this classic Christmas story, however I was one of the lucky few who can say she was part of the mother of all productions: Balanchine's Nutcracker. Growing up in Stamford, CT, there was a ballet school (no longer in existence) called Stamford City Ballet. To my knowledge, it acted as a "preparatory" ballet school, training dancers to hopefully transition to the famous SAB (School of American Ballet) and eventually New York City Ballet. It was one step closer for those aspiring ballerinas in the tri-state area to one day fill a spot in Peter Martins' roster of dancers. For me, it was what Christmastime was really about. Sure, presents were great, but for all the years that I performed in Balanchine's Nutcracker, all I ever wanted was an actual German nutcracker of my own to come alive and take me away to a magical candy land (thus started my five-year collection of nutcrackers). From my very first audition (it was my first year taking ballet and I was seven at the time), I earned the spot as a soldier. Dancing the simple part which I took very seriously became my first taste of performing in a professional dance production - I was hooked, and every year I continued to move up in the ranks. My second year I was a soldier again, except this time I would be holding a wooden sword rather than a wooden rifle, and I would go head-to-head in combat with the giant mice that were attacking our troop. Led by the seven-headed Mouse King, the mice (danced by the very talented male dancers of the second half of the show, usually from Spanish Coffee) would carry the soldiers off the stage in an organized yet staged-chaotic manner.
The following year I earned the part of the Polichinelle (probably the most exciting and terrifying part a child dancer can have in the show). The costumes were the most colorful, made to look like little marionette puppets, and the part of the Polichinelle are the little dancers that come out of Mother Ginger's dress. Mother Ginger herself is played by a male dancer dressed in drag on three-foot high painting-stilts covered by a giant hooped dress (8' wide,5' high and 3' deep) with a drawstring to open the front flaps of the dress for the EIGHT dancers to come running out (think of a walking clown car...). As a Polichinelle, while you are entering the stage in the dress, the anticipation to come out in front of the audience to take your bow is unbearable - the applause and "oohs" and "aahs" once the first dancer comes running out from the front flap of the dress is always worth the wait. However, as I mentioned before, it is also the most terrifying part; as we would enter from stage left under the skirt, our poor little toes were at the mercy of the 150 lb man with giant stilts above us. At any moment, we could be trampled, and many times someone's little pinky toe would get caught under the stilt as it was inching sideways. We were always underneath him staring straight down at our own feet as to make sure we would not trip dear Mother Ginger and ruin the whole effect of "The Land of the Sweets".
In my opinion, The Nutcracker is the most beloved Christmas tradition that dancers think of during the holidays. And for any dance enthusiast, it should also be on the top of the list. In true holiday form, forget "cyber Monday" or waiting in line for "door busters"...go see The Nutcracker! Tickets are still available for the New York City Ballet's production (the Balanchine version), running until December 31, 2011, or go support your local dance school's production of this holiday classic. Happy holiday season!