The Nutcracker – A Dancer’s Perspective

By Joseph Steinauer, Dancer Blogger

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Joseph Steinauer as the Lead Cannon Doll.

A dancer’s feelings about the annual run of The Nutcracker are a lesson in duality. The experience is something like this: nearing exhaustion from the rigors of our fall production, we arrive at a point where the return to something familiar is both alluring and comforting. We welcome the shelter of a show that has stood the test of time, one in which we know what to expect and what is expected of us. Basically, we want to warm ourselves at the hearth of Nutcracker’s yuletide notoriety. But simultaneously, mixed in with those snug feelings, is dread. Dread of boredom. Dread of repetition. Dread of the inevitable mundanity that is sure to coalesce around show number, say, fourteen. And at that point we’re only halfway done. So as dancers, amid these contradictory emotions, our main concern becomes how do we keep this thing fresh?

Luckily for us, at The National Ballet of Canada, an assortment of burnout-bypassing tactics are at our disposal. First, being in a company of 70 dancers means there are multiple casts. For instance, on Wednesday I may dance the role of a Waiter and on Thursday I may be on as a Chocolate man. Parts are shared, sometimes between a handful of people. In the Waltz of the Flowers, my couple’s spot is shared by five different women and three healthcare administration programs men. This means I may dance the part with one partner towards the beginning of the run, switch partners in the middle, then do the last show with yet another different partner. Talk about keeping us, literally and figuratively, on our toes. Another way to keep us spirited is by casting us in new roles. This year one of my new roles is the Cannon Doll who, along with the help of two guest celebrities, initiates the battle scene by firing a cannon into the audience. Before we go on stage, it’s my job to mingle with the celebrities, explain to them the day-to-day life of a ballet dancer, and let them observe the orchestrated mayhem of the backstage crew. Meeting new people and seeing their reaction to the scale of our show makes each show unique for me (one of the guest celebrities, upon seeing the horse in the family scene come off stage, asked me what it’s like to work with live animals in a show. Yes, the costuming is that good!). Yet another way things are kept interesting during bulk candles our 26-show run, and a factor that is out of our control, is the occasional sickness or injury. It is highly probable that at some point a dancer will get sick or injured and have to miss a show. This means his or her sharer for that part will go on. Well, in the event that their sharer was also supposed to do another part in the same show, then that person’s sharer would fill in for them in that spot. And so on, and so on. This is the trickle-down effect and its scope can be far-reaching. Eventually, instead of enjoying that rare night off on your couch, eating salad cookies and watching frozen movie reruns of “Mad Men”, you get a phone call saying they need you at the theatre as soon as possible.

So, all in all, keeping The Nutcracker alive and exciting all the way to the end isn’t as hard a task as you may think. We’re fortunate too that Tchaikovsky’s sonorous score is the closest thing to ballet pop music you can get. To this day, I still discover new intricacies within the music. There is one final, fail-safe strategy to be summoned should all of the above tactics flounder or boomerang. It is an ingredient so delicious on the unsatiated palate, so nutritious in its alimentary composition, that it can revitalize even the weariest of souls. It comes once each year, luckily for us, at the same time we do The Nutcracker. It’s called Christmas magic.

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The Horse in the wings.

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Artists of the Ballet await their entrance in the Waltz of the Flowers.

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Wardrobe Staff Barbara de Kat and Grant Heaps help Alexandra MacDonald into her snow maiden costume.

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The Family Scene in Act I from the wings.

The Nutcracker photos by by Bruce Zinger.

The Enduring Appeal of The Nutcracker

By Karen Kain, Artistic Director, The National Ballet of Canada

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Karen Kain

It’s the dream – if not a rite of passage – of every young girl ballet student to dance the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. It’s often their first experience of or involvement in a big, full-length work, with elaborate sets and costumes and a live orchestral score, of performing with older, professional dancers and the incomparable thrill of taking to the stage before a large audience. Alas, I never had the chance. I was deemed too tall to play a child of Clara’s age and never cast in the role.

When I was older and joined The National Ballet of Canada, I naturally had my fill of The Nutcracker every year, especially in the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballet is still a mainstay of any classical ballet company, as much, it juegos has to be admitted, for the box office it generates as for the seasonal good cheer it provides. The upside of an annual performance like The Nutcracker is performing with and for children, whose totally ingenuous excitement at taking part in such a spectacle buoys everyone’s spirits. The downside of an annual performance like The Nutcracker is that it is, well, an annual performance. And a small book could be filled with the onstage and backstage antics that dancers indulge in just to inject a little improvisatory surprise to break up the familiarity of the work.

Yet The Nutcracker continues to enthrall, to attract audiences and to mean something special happy wheels demo to people. And I think the reason for this goes beyond its appeal as a timeless Christmas ritual, a close-to-perfect entertainment for children (yes, of all ages), beyond the glitter and charming old-fashioned fantasy of its theatricality, it really is about something.

When James Kudelka created our current version of the ballet in 1995, he certainly didn’t stint on spectacle (or on brilliant choreography) and his resetting of the story to Imperial Russia and the natural world of a farm, with warm and gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto, is more than a feast for the eye. But James also introduced into his re-working of the story some new and affecting themes. By centering the story on the brother-sister relationship of Misha and Marie (no Clara in this version) and how they evolve from a pair of squabbling kids to more mature adolescents by teaming up to defeat the Mouse Tzar, he emphasizes the importance of working together and overcoming petty disagreements to reach a higher goal. Similarly, by including characters from all levels of society, such as Peter the Stable Boy, who is transmogrified into the heroic Nutcracker himself, he democratizes and makes more inclusive what had often been a saccharine vision of mitteleuropean bourgeois society.

Neither of these themes are imposed on the ballet or turn it into something didactic – they grow organically from James’s storytelling skill and take their proper part in the gentle sweetness of its comedy and child-like reverie, as they should. But what they remind us of is that there is more to this evergreen, endlessly entertaining Christmas confection known as The Nutcracker, than simply meets the eye. It’s ample food for the sense, but in its own surprising way it’s food for thought, too.

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Megan Storm Hill as Marie.

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Piotr Stanczyk as Uncle Nikolai with Artists of the Ballet as the Horse.

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Heather Ogden as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

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Artists of the Ballet as Snow Maidens.

Karen Kain, photo by Sian Richards. The Nutcracker photos by Bruce Zinger.

A New Nutcracker Story Time

By Gerry Campbell, Writer and Director of Nutcracker Story Time

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Story Time actors, Scott Yamamura and Nicole Frasier.

James Kudelka’s re-imagining of The Nutcracker more than fifteen years ago has provided enough richness to keep dancers and audience members engaged year after year. The way he elevated a modest children’s tale to one that engages adults and kids is driven by a fascinating mix of storytelling and (like all great kids’ stories) a look at the delights and terrors of childhood.

This year we have a new Nutcracker Story Time, presented in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre before every Nutcracker show! The new Story Time provides context for not only the kids, but also for the adults who accompany them. Our idea was to orient the kids to what they were about to see through the eyes of grown-up versions of Misha and Marie. In this version Marie is married and has a son and Misha is a successful St. Petersburg lawyer who has a daughter. They have returned, for the first time in many years, to the barn where their magical Christmas Eve journey began many years before and reminisce about that wonderful night.

Enjoy Nutcracker Story Time 45 minutes before every performance of The Nutcracker in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. Free to all ticket holders.

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Scott and Nicole during Story Time.

 

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Audience members watching Nutcracker Story Time.

The Nutcracker is on stage until January 3 >

The Nutcracker’s Unsung Hero – Laurel Toto

By Emily Burke, National Ballet Blogger

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Laurel Toto in the wings with Anastasia Kornienkova as Marie.

The Nutcracker’s stage is packed with energetic kids, looking spontaneous and rambunctious without sacrificing the balletic grace and orderliness of the production. Ranging in age from seven to 15, there are 60 kids per performance and 248 in total for this year’s production. They’re on stage with a professional company and that demands a level of focus and discipline, which is a lot to ask of a seven year old.

And Laurel Toto manages the entire gaggle of youngsters!

As Junior School Manager and Community Engagement Co-Manager at Canada’s National Ballet School, Laurel oversees every detail from casting, to teaching choreography and running rehearsals, to giving notes before each performance, to helping kids with tummy aches and stubbed toes. She also manages to cook a full turkey dinner with her husband, come Christmas day. Who knows how she does it. Perhaps our dear friend Sugar Plum sprinkled a little fairy dust in her direction.

Emily: How do you manage all of the kids?

Laurel: Well half of them are from the professional ballet programme so this is part of their education. And I think [Choreographer] James Kudelka has given them a gift. There are very few ballets for children that have this much dancing for them and this much interaction with company members. They’re onstage all the time. And I think there’s no better way for them to figure out what it’s going to be like to be a professional dancer.

Emily: I’m amazed that they’re so serious and committed. I think of myself at that age and I don’t know if I could have taken it so seriously.

Laurel: They are quite serious. They’re very passionate. I find that I have to be careful when I work with them that I establish my authority but don’t condescend to them because they’re very intelligent and committed. And it’s a very rewarding thing to do, to work with the children. When they start out in September, a lot of them are new. A lot of them have never worked with a company. Some of them have not been onstage in a big production before and have never experienced the kind of tension that there is to get it all right. After Nutcracker when they come back to school they have matured to a whole new level. It is a great experience for them.

Emily: What is the hardest part?

Laurel: All the administration. With 248 kids come 248 parents. Or 500! They need a lot of information. Also, doing all the casting and the maintenance. And every year at least half the cast is new. It’s not like in a company when many people have done it over and over again.”

Emily: Who walks them through the steps?

Laurel: I do. I set the whole thing. It’s a lot. It’s dense choreography and then of course we have three or four casts who are learning it!

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Laurel Toto backstage with a students from Canada’s National Ballet School as Courtiers.

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Laurel Toto backstage with a student from Canada’s National Ballet School as a Unicorn.

The Nutcracker is on stage until January 3 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

All photos by Bruce Zinger.

Emily Burke is a writer and journalist in Toronto. She loves the arts, but ballet in particular. Her favourite productions are Glass Pieces and Onegin. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Behind the Scenes at The Nutcracker

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By Nick Augustyn, National Ballet Blogger

As I entered the dark of the Four Season Centre’s backstage for The Nutcracker’s dress rehearsal on Friday December 9, many stage hands were sweeping large confetti from the sprung linoleum floor in preparation for the evening’s performance. Scattered strategically were all of designer Santo Loquasto’s colourful and detailed costumes and set pieces made in 1995. The vivid cat and dog cavalry were waiting patiently. To my right hung the bear costumes waiting for their owners to fill them with life. I could see the famous gilded Fabergé egg perched on its ornate stand in the wings. I walked over to it and was surprised at its intricacy, considering it’s a stage prop. When I turned around I was shocked to see that the amount of people backstage had doubled. The now animated bear costume whizzed past me on roller blades and leaped over some lights, the Assistant Stage Manager was counting props, and a Wardrobe Assistant was helping a Snow Maiden into her tutu. The show was on.

An hour later everyone fell silent as The Sugar Plum Fairy, played by First Soloist Tina Pereira, stepped out of her Fabergé egg. Her solo was graceful and appeared effortless. But when she stepped off the stage and into the wings a transformation took place. The Sugar Plum Fairy had turned into an exhausted Tina Pereira, drained of all her energy by her performance. My backstage ticket had awarded me a glimpse of this transformation, something unseen from the seats in the auditorium.

It became apparent through the confidence and routine of the dancers and backstage staff that most had worked or performed in The Nutcracker before. “This is my twentieth year,” I overheard a dancer say. I knew the tradition of the National Ballet’s The Nutcracker in Toronto but had never considered the reverence for it that the performers shared. “It’s for the kids,” I heard several people say over the course of the night. But seeing how the dancers and backstage staff enjoy being part of this tradition, it became clear that it’s for more than just the kids.

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Snow Maidens await their entrance in the wings.

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The lambs about to follow Baba out on stage.

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The Horse has a seat before going back on stage!

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The Sugar Plum Fairy, Tina Pereira, on stage during the break for intermission.

All photos by Bruce Zinger.

 

Nick Augustyn is a freelance writer and videographer with a B.F.A in screenwriting from York University, and a graduate of the Etobicoke School of the Arts. His love of dance and the performing arts grew out of his backstage upbringing with his father, former National Ballet Principal Dancer Frank Augustyn.

A Nutcracker Debut for Two

By Emily Burke, National Ballet Blogger

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Elena Lobsanova and McGee Maddox rehearsing The Nutcracker, photo by Bruce Zinger.

For most people, the holidays are a time to slow down and relax in front of the fireplace. But for ballet dancers, December is all about The Nutcracker. ‘Tis the season for hard work and dedication! I stopped in for a chat with First Soloists Elena Lobsanova and McGee Maddox who are dancing as the the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker in the upcoming holiday favourite.

Emily: Does The Nutcracker get you in the Holiday spirit or is it sort of like being a chef who gets home and just wants take-out because he’s sick of cooking?

McGee: There is that aspect to it but from a very young age since I trained in my small studio in South Carolina, I’ve been doing The Nutcracker. I think that there’s a ritual and a schedule that we get into. There’s kind of a morale that picks up at work knowing that you have all these shows everyday.

Elena: It’s wonderful. You really get into it. Everyone teases each other and people bring their kids in and their kids are so beautiful.

McGee: I just think we do our best to try to make it fun to come to work and see each other and we’re around each other so much. The company dynamic changes. It’s always positive anyway but it becomes a lot more fun. We’re exchanging roles every night so I think in terms of putting me in the Holiday spirit, yeah it does.

Elena: It really does. If I think of the Holidays, I think of The Nutcracker. This Nutcracker has been in our company for 16 years and that in itself is a tradition. Plus it’s been done for 120 years with different versions. It’s a real historical piece.

Emily: Elena, you’re the first person to dance Marie as a young girl and to grow up to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Did you dream of that when you danced as Marie?

Elena: As a little kid I just felt like this fly on the wall witnessing the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy and having contact with them all the time. As a kid that means so much because they’re actually delivering a story, not just to the audience but also to the people onstage. They were like these beautiful giants that were telling this amazing fantasy that I got to be a part of. So it’s amazing to do it now and have the ability to translate that to a generation of little kids. It’s really something to make it full circle.

Emily: You’ve both been promoted to First Soloist this year. What’s it like being the next generation of ballet stars but to still have so many great, experienced dancers to learn from?

Elena: I’ve grown up with them. I love what they have to say and I respect them as artists and they’re very supportive.

McGee: Yeah and its great having them tell me where I can rest or where I can take it easy and when I really need to push. Just having them tell me to expect that and how to pace myself, that’s a big help. It’s great to have so many experienced dancers, especially with The Nutcracker. They’ve done it year after year.

Emily Burke is a writer and journalist in Toronto. She loves the arts but ballet in particular. Her favourite productions are Glass Pieces and Onegin. You can follow her on Twitter here.