'Tis the Season
For many ballet dancers and students alike, October and November are the harbinger of the annual Nutcracker performance season that usually starts in late November or early December and runs through New Year's Eve. Many ballet companies perform George Balanchine's classic favorite "The Nutcracker," while other companies offer moderate variations or completely different versions, including Christopher Wheeldon's four million dollar version set on the Joffrey Ballet last year that took the characters out of 19th century Europe and into early 20th century America.
If you follow dancers on social media you see their almost daily posts about Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, and their fun time-lapse videos of makeup or wardrobe preparation. I love watching these and seeing the quirky goings on about what it takes to get ready for a perennial favorite. There is WAY more detail and effort than most people realize to put on a great Nutcracker.
You even see posts about how many performances dancers have this season—anywhere from 25–50—and how they dread or look forward to the daily grind of performing the same Nutcracker roles day in and day out for two, three, four, or five weeks straight. Occasionally you'll even see a video clip of some Bear, Cavalier, or Hoop jumps, or perhaps a sultry Arabian number.
Inevitably you'll come across some dancers who say, "If I hear Waltz of the Flowers music one more time I'll tear out my headpiece," lamenting the fact that Tchaikovsky's unmistakable score is often broadcast not just on stages across the country this time of year, but also across big box stores, encouraging shoppers to buy just one more Christmas tree ornament.
As a former ballet student who performed in four seasons of Nutcracker with Pennsylvania Ballet back in the 1980s—as a Drosselmeyer helper, Polichinelle, Hoop, and Mouse—I thought I'd never want to hear the Sugar Plum fairy music ever again. But that's totally not true.
A funny thing happens on the way to adulthood. All those years of ballet training, and all those years of Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, do a number on you. And instead of cringing every time I hear the battle scene music, or the waltz of the snowflakes, I smile and start to hum the music.
I can still hear my 13-year-old self coming home after ballet class one October evening in 1986 and telling my daddy that the casting had come out for Nutcracker. I had been a Hoop the year before, which was my favorite role I had performed because it felt like real dancing (and I got to dance on stage with Jeffrey Gribler, a principal dancer and darling of Pennsylvania Ballet) and had hoped I'd be a Hoop again. But no, because I was now a year older and taller, I was cast as a Mouse who wore a full costume with an enormous mouse head.
"What's wrong?" my dad asked when he saw my dejected face.
"I'm a rat!!!" I bemoaned, wallowing in a self-pity that only a 13-year-old ballet dancer could.
He smiled and said, "You're lucky. You get to dance."