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Sharon Wehner and The Nutcracker

Thursday, December 14, 2017


The Nutcracker. No other ballet in the history of dance has become so synonymous with Christmas and American tradition. It’s hard to believe that the ballet originally flopped when first premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. In fact, it did not truly become the phenomenon it is today until re-staged by Willam Christensen and the San Francisco Ballet over fifty years later. Tchaikovsky’s score, originally critiqued by some as “ponderous” and “insipid” is now employed for everything from football blooper videos to automobile commercials. I once walked out of Macy’s in defiance when the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” came on over the speakers. It was my first time dancing the role, and I had broken out in a sweat when the music infiltrated my unsuspecting psyche while innocently shopping for Holiday gifts.
It’s not that I don’t like the Nutcracker or its music. On the contrary, it has become an inherent part of my life, my career--literally part of the fabric of my being. I am not exaggerating. To a professional ballet dancer Christmas without Nutcracker would be like Thanksgiving without Turkey...we joke about its ubiquitousness, but deep down we are ever so slightly addicted to it. I have numerous friends who have retired from dancing and they are still involved in the Nutcracker. If not actually performing as a guest dancer, they are teaching other children how to be toy soldiers and Mother Ginger’s polichinelles, or at least attending as an audience member. Like an old friend, the Nutcracker never really leaves a dancer’s life completely.

How did we become infected with such a virus? Everyone has a different story. My first experience with the Nutcracker was as a child watching Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov on PBS. I can remember being all alone in the living room (my brothers were not so interested), entranced by the magical story unfolding before me. The televised version of Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker was not only technically flawless from the dancing perspective, but also included close-ups of Clara’s enchanted facial expressions and Drosselmeyer’s ambiguous and mysterious side show. In the final scene, I was truly convinced that Clara in fact had not been dreaming, but had journeyed to a magical place in another dimension--a place that I was dying to be a part of myself. Little did I know that one day I would indeed be a part of Nutcracker-land, over and over and over again.

Every year at least one person looks at me with pity and says that they don’t know how we dancers can stand performing the same thing 30 times year after year. And in the next moment, another person will look at me with bright eyes when they learn I am a ballerina and exclaim, “Do you dance in that show...the Nutcracker...I LOVE that one!” It’s an interesting dichotomy in which we are placed.

The truth is that most dancers don’t actually loath performing the same thing over and over again. Most of them enjoy the opportunity to master their craft at something, to have it so in their system that they can relax enough to enjoy the experience of being on stage and connecting with an eager audience (it is rare to find any Scrooges attending the Nutcracker). Of course there are exceptions. If there are particular roles or choreography that a dancer is not fond of, you can imagine the kind of torture it would be to put on a happy face in front of 2000 people every day for the entire month of December.

But boredom itself is not a problem for most dancers. Ballet is a live performing art. Nothing is recorded, and there are no “do-overs.” We are not machines, but living beings using our bodies as expression. Therefore, every performance is a unique string of moments in time and space. Even though the choreography is the same, there are an infinite number of ways to execute and find character, nuance and expression within those steps. Even though the musical score is the same, a live orchestra brings an added element of variation. When I dance the Sugarplum Fairy, I feel as if I am dancing with three partners. There is my Cavalier with me on stage, there is the conductor and orchestra in the pit, and beyond that there is the audience. Each of these partners plays a crucial role in the art I am creating on stage, and they are different every performance. In addition, my body is never the same body from day to day, moment to moment. Although we may look light and effortless as we piroette and jete across the stage, in reality we may be having a serious conversation with a sore hamstring or knee in order to create that illusion.

The Nutcracker is a love-hate symbiotic relationship with all involved. As dancers, we never get to go shopping on Black Friday, we have to check our gluttony on Thanksgiving and Christmas day (no-one wants to see a plump Plum or hung-over Prince rolling around the stage the next day), and most Holiday Parties must go unattended. Christmas shopping usually happens at midnight on the computer when we get home from the theatre. Christmas cards get written in the physical therapy room while waiting to get an ankle adjusted between matinee and evening performances. Often we are unable to go “home” to visit our families. The theatre becomes our home. The other dancers, musicians, and stage-hands become our family. Every year, our prop crew set up a fake Christmas tree in the Green Room of the Opera House. Although we don’t sit around it singing Christmas carols, its presence is comforting as we fill our coffee cups in preparation for the second show of the day. The sheer athleticism of performing six weeks straight inevitably takes a physical and emotional toll on us. Compound this with the universal stress that comes with the Holidays, and most dancers are ready to collapse when the curtain comes down on the last performance.

That being said, there is also an intangible “specialness” that comes with being a performer during the Holidays. If you can strip Christmas-time of its commercialism, emotional baggage and stress, there is a festive, beautiful, and generous spirit that can be tapped into. For many, attending the Nutcracker is a way to fill that cup. Ultimately we dancers understand our responsibility as magic-makers, and we feel honored to do so. There is nothing more satisfying than finishing a well-executed Nutcracker performance and knowing a thousand little faces will leave the theatre smiling and wondering if Clara really did have a beautiful adventure with her Nutcracker Prince.

Epilogue

I wrote the above article a couple of years ago. Now, as I contemplate my final Nutcracker Season with the Colorado Ballet, I look over the article, wondering if it still rings true today. The answer is simply “yes, and then some.” The qualities and experiences of being a performer during the holidays remains the same. But as I inhabit the six week adventure of living in the Ellie Caulkin’s Opera House for the last time, a new sentimentality resonates. Everyone has their holiday traditions… for some it involves trimming a tree, family meals, religious rituals, caroling, etc…The Theatre and the Nutcracker have been my holiday home for most of my adult life. Throughout the ups-and-downs of my personal life, there remained the constant thread of showing up at the theatre, putting on my costume and makeup, sewing pointe shoes every spare moment, sprinkling “fairy dust” on the eight-year-old Angels during intermission, feeling the lights on me as I dance the Sugar Plum Fairy solo to the delicate sounds of the celeste. These have become my holiday traditions. My fellow performers, stage crew, and orchestra members have become my holiday family. The musty Mouse Costumes in the hall, the powdery astringent scent of rosin backstage, the allure of fresh brewed coffee in the green room inviting us to rally into Sunday evening showtime at the end of the long week—these have become the smells of Christmas. Playful children’s voices trailing from the upstairs dressing rooms, the orchestra warming up, football on the crew's television in the back room, the stage manager’s precisely calculated calls across the intercom—these have become the sounds of Christmas. It’s hard to imagine the Holidays any other way.

The other night, just before making my entrance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, I was watching our Ballet Mistress’s teenage daughter performing as a Polichinelle, center stage. She was beaming with performance charisma, smiling brightly and jumping through the air with both precision and delighted abandonment. A memory of her swept through me…she was three years old, sitting next to me backstage, as I sewed the ribbons of my point shoes at intermission, again preparing to go onstage as the Sugar Plum. Her little three-year-old hands were curious, as she played with my thread, pretending to sew her own little socks onto her feet.

The passage of time brings so many gifts. Being a part of this ballet company for so long, dancing the Nutcracker year after year, has allowed me to watch children grow up, young dancers develop their stage craft and rise through the ranks, bonds between colleagues mature into deep friendships. It’s impossible not to feel sentimental, because like any holiday tradition, there is the odd dichotomy of what always happens every year, and what has changed as the river of life flows insistently through the banks of time. We notice the people who are still around us, those who have grown and changed, those who have moved on to other adventures, and even passed on to other worlds. It’s a bittersweet human experience…

And then, the stage manager calls “final places,” and I am forced back into the present. Performance-time is no place for sentimental rumination. Complete presence is required to execute the physical and artistic demands of my role, lest I give the audience anything less than the Ultimate Nutcracker Experience. Thank goodness for this reality of live theatre. Although the Opera House may be packed with 2000 people, each individual is there to experience a special moment in time, in the now. And my responsibility, and hope, is to be the one to give it.

 

 

 


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