Everybody knows Nutcracker. Even those who have never seen a ballet in their life have heard the Sugarplum music piped over an Oreo commercial or listened to Waltz of the Flowers drifting through Target as they go about their December shopping.
As dancers, we know Nutcracker in a very different way. For many of us it was our first ballet and our first experience sharing the stage with professional dancers. I remember watching as a child, favoring the theatrical party scene over the dance heavy Land of the Sweets. I badly wanted to join the action on stage, preferable as a reindeer pulling Clara’s sleigh.
Nothing could beat the magic of the Christmas tree growing with Drosselmeyer’s power. I would sit in the dark theater, captivated by the lights and scenery, yearning to be a part of a universe where Christmas trees were unconstrained by laws of nature.
These days, as a professional dancer, I am part of that world every holiday season. With this regularity comes a loss of that sense of magic. The realities of a hard stage and too many saut de chats in snow scene, the bruised toenails from pointe-work laden Marzipan, and the struggle to keep the body warm and pliable amidst snow storms and slushy streets can all contribute to the Nutcracker blues.
Ample stage time affords an opportunity to work on aspects of your dancing you may neglect in shows with shorter runs.
Suddenly, nothing is worse than hearing Tchaikovsky’s Christmas masterpiece any more often than absolutely necessary. I have to cover my ears while Christmas shopping to avoid hearing the popular Russian dance music. I cause quite a scene sprinting to the next store where I can escape from the songs I’ve rehearsed to for two months every year.
So, what’s a dancer to do?
First, distractions help. Our company always organizes a Secret Santa that begins tech week. We give each other a couple of small gifts or one larger present, sneaking around the cavernous backstage of our performance hall to plant gifts.
Decorations also tend to make their way into the dressing room. Last year our stage manager spread Christmas spirit by slowly embellishing our dressing rooms. By the last show, I arrived at my dressing room to find Christmas lights strung over the door frame, my mirror framed in tinsel, a tiny Christmas tree taped to the makeup area, and ornaments hanging from the coat rack.
Think of the children in those seats that may be inspired to pursue a career in dance because of your performance.
Games like these go a long way towards maintaining a playful outlook and keeping a sense of camaraderie amongst the company despite the exhaustion and stress we experience during this season. However, there are also more focused options to lessen the monotony of so many performances.
Ample stage time affords an opportunity to work on aspects of your dancing you may neglect in shows with shorter runs. You can choose a different focus each night: concentrate on your character and stage presence Thursday, emphasize you port de bras Friday, hone in on footwork Saturday, and then take the freedom to just dance during the Sunday matinee. Being so comfortable with the steps allows you to develop your technique and artistry in new ways. The stakes are lower with so many performances: Nutcracker is the time to take risks!
Finally, a shift in perspective can help break through the fatigue. Imagine sitting out in the audience, bubbling with excitement as the orchestra warms up. Think of Nutcracker as the family tradition it is for so many and the chance for us as artists to interact with a community that may never see any other ballet. Think of the children in those seats that may be inspired to pursue a career in dance because of your performance. Think of yourself as a child, wishing for a part in the magical Land of the Sweets.
When I can remember all this, the stiffness eases, the pain melts away, and exhaustion cedes to a second wind. I step on stage and I’m in that childhood dream: Clara’s fantasy world becomes my own. For two hours, I am part of a world where visions of sugarplums dance, evil mice can be conquered by a well aimed shoe toss, and Christmas trees grow to heights only possible with the magic of Nutcracker.