As we gear up for the start of competition season—which is just around the corner and we can’t wait—many dancers pause their competition rehearsals to take part in the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker ballet. Set to composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, the timeless story was originally adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s storybook, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and the work has evolved into a holiday classic that is widely performed and hugely celebrated across the U.S. and around the world. But did you know that many of your IDA judges grew up performing in the ballet, whether as students or professionals, and many have worked to create adaptations with their own students, too!? In honor of one of the world’s favorite ballets, we asked the IDA judges to share their favorite aspects of The Nutcracker, as well as tips to stay performance ready during long rehearsals and tricks to develop character and stage presence.
It’s no secret that dancers and audiences love The Nutcracker, but what is it about this particular production that makes it so special? IDA judge and professional dancer, Sam Quinn, grew up performing in the Boston Dance Company’s production and cites his excitement surrounding the show: “I love the story of community it tells, but also the true village of dancers it takes to bring the story to life. From Clara and Fritz, to the Sugar Plum and Cavalier, it demands dancers of all ages.” He also notes the importance of being a young dance student and having the opportunity to perform alongside professional dancers from notable companies like the Boston Ballet. Similarly, judge and teacher, Daniel Tardibono, explains, “I've found that not only is the audition process [for The Nutcracker] a wonderful learning experience, but those that are cast see firsthand the hard work and dedication required to be in a company. Whether students are party children, mice, clowns, or any other number of characters, they come back to regular class inspired by their experience and ready to work hard in their training.” It’s amazing what dancers can learn by switching their environment and being surrounded by working professionals.
One of the greatest challenges of being in a professional production is that the schedule is especially demanding. Dancers in The Nutcracker are often required to perform two shows per day and to participate in long rehearsals, both in the studio and on stage. IDA Judge and dancer Christina Belinsky also danced in the Boston Dance Company’s production and explains that she learned how to care for her body at a young age thanks to her time with the company. She has many great suggestions for dancers to get through those long days. First, she emphasizes the importance of having a healthy, hearty breakfast, as well as quick, easy snacks on hand. Her favorites include hummus, pretzels, carrots, edamame salad, and trail mix. She also stresses the importance of hydration, proper warm-up, and rest, and warns, “There is nothing worse than a calf muscle or foot cramp during the closing bourrées of [the Snow scene] when you have another whole act to go.” Other dancers echo these sentiments. IDA judge and teacher Andrea Tracy performed in The Nutcracker for 25 years and continues her annual involvement with her students. She enjoys warming up with modern-technique based exercises on the floor and in the center, in addition to a full ballet class. Sam also reminds us of the importance of wearing layers to stay warm and continuing to take class even when rehearsals and performances ramp up.
Another element that many dancers have to consider during an intense run of a show is their pointe shoes. Andrea reminds dancers that the stage is not a great place to break in a new pair of shoes, but that the flip side of dancing in a “dead” pair can be dangerous and exhausting, as it is much more difficult to “pull up” and out of the shoes. IDA judge Shannon Keating suggests having two pairs of pointe shoes to alternate, and Andrea suggests airing out shoes directly following a performance to make them last longer. Christina agrees, reminding dancers to also remove any toe pads from their shoes to air out. She shares her foot care regimen, recalling, “As soon as I would get home from each show and especially rehearsals, I would sit up on the bathroom sink and run cold water over my feet for a few minutes before drying and icing. It always made my tired feet feel better and was very soothing to both the muscles and the blisters.” Similarly, Shannon suggests Epsom salt soaks and cautions dancers against popping their blisters.
Aside from staying in tip top performance shape around show time, another challenge of performing in a story ballet is character development. Each role has its place in the ballet and exists for a reason, so it’s important to invest in the performance of each role, especially since many dancers have to execute multiple roles in one show. Christina brings up the value of performing multiple roles and explains, “As dancers, we must be versatile artists. Getting to perform various roles keeps you well-rounded and malleable as a performing artist. If you are still in the pre-professional part of your training, it is a great opportunity to take note of your growth as a performer, acknowledging both your challenges and accomplishments.” Performing multiple roles now can set dancers up for future successes in a wide range of dance jobs; versatility is key in today’s field! But how can dancers ensure success in how they approach each character? Judges agree that a great place to start is to consider the genuine excitement and feelings of each character. In the party scene, for example, dancers should imagine the thrill of the holiday season and how this makes them feel. Christina suggests that it can be helpful to listen closely to the music for energetic and qualitative cues, and Sam encourages dancers to think about each character’s intentions or objectives. Shannon synthesizes all of these points and urges dancers to “think about how your performance can make a difference to the show by portraying your role with 110%. Over the years you will have plenty of jobs and contracts you like better than others, but success comes from committing to your absolute best performance every time. Remember, dancing is fun!” We perform because we love it and want to share our passion with our audiences, so be sure that you don’t allow that passion to get lost.
The holiday season is a time of giving and there is no better gift than the joy of dance. Sometimes, though, we get tired or burnt out and that joy disappears, so it’s important to stay inspired. Andrea suggests taking a moment to find gratitude before going on stage—we are so lucky to get to do what we love and share it with others! Sam shares, “I always get inspired by seeing kids in the audience. Seeing their faces light up keeps me going during the sometimes grueling performance schedule. Think back to when you were a young dancer idolizing other dancers. You’re doing just that for the next generation and they will remember the performances for the rest of their lives. Make someone smile this holiday season!” Whether it’s your first or fiftieth Nutcracker season, find and share the joy! We wish you a happy holiday season and can’t wait to see you on the competition stage in January! Merde!
Photos provided by: IDA Judge Andrea