The first time I saw the 1977 version of The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland I knew I wanted to dance. Nine years later, when I was 12 years old, I was finally old enough to perform in my first Nutcracker with the local ballet company. I had longed to dance on the same stage with big girls and I finally had my chance. In those years Nutcracker performances were every other year, playing a game of leap frog with the ballet A Christmas Carol. And so I began my holiday season, like many who study ballet, with a tradition of performance.
This tradition continued through my high school years. While A Christmas Carol, is a completely different seasonal story, my favorite was always Nutcracker. So many wonderful stories and cherished memories flood my mind and heart.
The cast would rehearse for several months leading up to tech week in the theatre and opening on a Friday night. I absolutely loved being in the theatre. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts is a beautiful theatre that opened in 1985 in downtown Olympia. We’d load/move into the theatre on a Sunday and each of the following nights, we’d rehearse. First with a standard run through on Monday night, followed by tech night on Tuesday and full dress rehearsals Wednesday and Thursday nights. Tech night was the best. In full costume but no make-up, we wouldn’t really dance much as the lighting director would stop the music to see what lights looked best with the scene and costumes. These nights could easily run past midnight. And once the witching hour passed, things would get a little silly with cast and crew. Such as paper cups stuck to dancers backs via an encouraging pat on the back from the stage crew and other such pranks. As well as much giggling, yawns and the full energy spectrum from hyper to utterly exhausted.
On tech nights my mom and I would enjoy a relaxing cup of cocoa after I got home from the theatre. We’d chat about the nights rehearsal and upcoming performances, while the cocoa mellowed me out. She was extremely supportive during tech week. She would inform my school that I was in performance and I would probably miss my first few classes that week. Also, I never went to school on Friday, opening night. My mom allowed me this wonderful indulgence so I was well rested, fresh and focused on the performance. This was no stage mom tactic mind you, I was more than agreeable. This small dip in school attendance never affected my academics, but was a huge gift when under the stress of performing.
She’d also make a huge batch of her pasta meat sauce and I’d eat a huge bowl several hours before going on stage. This was one of my favorite meals, but it also gave me a great deal of fuel and energy that I’d burn while dancing.
One year, I was having problems with my left big toe while dancing en pointe. A trip to the podiatrist revealed an ingrown toe nail. I had it surgically removed several weeks before performance. However, it somehow became infected during production. Back to the doctor to lance the infected area, relieve the infection (by allowing it to bleed) and on to a performance THAT night – en pointe. I can remember looking at my bandaged toe, twice the size as it is normally and wondering how I was going to stuff it into my pointe shoe. Sitting on the floor of the dressing room in my costume I could hear the music of the ending of the fight scene over the monitors. I crammed my foot into my shoe, tied the ribbons and made my way up to the stage. One particular dancer had seen me on the dressing room floor and knew my predicament. She took it upon herself to go up to the director back stage and insist I couldn’t perform. The director looked at me, I shrugged if off and said I was fine. Not knowing how it would feel to actually be up en pointe in my shoes – yet (I was saving it for the performance). Our entrance music approached. I smiled and positioned myself in the wings. The show must go on.
I was so high on adrenaline, I didn’t feel a thing en pointe. It was rather funny that in the second act, I was a bare foot Arabian maiden with the biggest left toe you had ever seen (wrapped in a flesh colored bandage).
I can also remember the first time someone said Merde to me. One does not wish a dancer good luck – those in the know say Merde (French for shit). I don’t really know why, that’s just the way it is. It was my first Nutcracker dancing en pointe and we were about to enter for the snow scene. One of my beloved friends, a beautiful older dancer came up to me, grabbed my hands in hers and said Merde and then hugged me. It was quite odd, I kind of knew what it meant and I kind of didn’t. All I do know is I felt like I had just been indoctrinated into an ages old ballet tradition of all the great ballerinas. It felt very special.
I have not only performed in my share of Nutcrackers I have also choreographed and directed. A lifetime of that score in my head and it doesn’t help that every commercial and department store feels the need to share the seasonal cheer with Nutcracker music. One piece I shall never tire of is the music of the snow scene. It’s one of my best loved Tchaikovsky pieces, he completely captures the serenity, excitement and frenzy of a snow storm. That and the Spanish from the second act, because that was my last Nutcracker dancing role as a senior in high school.
If you have not gone already, go to see a LIVE performance of the Nutcracker in your town. My all time favorite is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker in Seattle (which is now retired). It’s less about ballet but more about the pure magic of the season. Where adults can be just as wide eyed and full of wonder as the children, in fact it’s encouraged. It’s about cold snowy nights, warm hearts and festive holiday spectacles. Give yourself the gift of being a child again. And welcome the sugar plums to dance in your head!