Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a magical ballet. With dozens of parts for children (mice, gingerbread men, sugarplum-fairy-attendants!), it’s an endearing work. But if you’re the choreographer—the person trying to organize all those dancers—it’s no easy task. Culture Couch producer Jason Reynolds takes us behind the scenes at the Dayton Ballet.
The Dayton Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is gigantic. The show requires a choreographer and director, professional ballet dancers, rehearsal assistants, stagehands, wardrobe, and the Dayton Philharmonic… And that’s just part of the production.
This year’s cast includes 111 child dancers from 22 different schools. It takes a little magic to make sure they all hit their marks.
“We try to do it in layers,” Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke says. “First teach the steps, then teach where they’re supposed to be on the steps, and then we bring the professionals in. And they actually rise to the level of the professionals. They see that pretend can be any age.”
The chance to pretend like a professional keeps children coming back year after year. Ballerinas often start out as a lamb or a mouse in kindergarten, then go on to play almost every role in the ballet over the next ten to twelve years. That’s the route Russo Burke took.
“At five years of age,” Russo Burke says, “I was cast as a mouse, and our director, after the mice were done, she would have all the mice sit, and we could watch the entire show. And I remember watching the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen.”
These days, Russo Burke is directing the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen, but down the hall, in a different studio, Megan Forney and Gabrielle Sharp are conducting a rehearsal with three dozen children. Forney and Sharp are in their 20s, but they both have over a decade of experience with the Dayton Ballet. For them, The Nutcracker is ritual.
Sharp says, “I feel like it’s home. I remember when I was in the old Nutcracker, when I was eleven, and Karen being like, ‘Now you’re part of the Ballet family.’ And I’ve been here ever since. So, it definitely feels like family.”
And Forney agrees. “We start rehearsing the weekend of Halloween,” she says. “And we go through right up to Christmas. So, when it becomes this time of year, I think—for us and for the kids that do it year after year—this is what you do this whole season.”
Putting on The Nutcracker is not without its difficulties. Sometimes kids get sick before a show, and when one of them pees, it’s called an “angel puddle.” Once, when the company was in Omaha for a performance, a bat came out of the rafters during rehearsals.
“One young lady was terrified of bats,” Stage Master Stacie Biggle says. “She freaked out, and it became this ping-pong match of colliding snowflakes on stage with people panicking and freaking out. It was just mass chaos. Then we have stage hands getting out stage poles, and they’re trying to shoo the bat away.”
Mostly, they take it in stride, as Russo Burke says, “You know, it just all happens. It’s live theater.”
In the weeks leading up to the ballet, the Victoria Theatre is crowded with young dancers and their parents. In the waiting areas, there’s lots of smiles and giggling, but there’s also some nail biting and nervous knee bouncing.
Ava Holzberger, who is eleven years old, is playing Clara this year, and she’s excited about her big scenes. “I think the party will be my favorite,” she says, “because you get to hold the nutcracker and you have a solo. I think that’s fun.”
But the ballet isn’t all fun and games. As Holzberger notes, “If you mess up, the whole ballet might mess up. If you’re off timing, nothing will really work out.”
Making sure things work takes a lot practice. A.J. Gross is playing Fritz this year, and he and his mother, Rebecca, are spending a lot of time at the ballet.
“I’m going to have five rehearsals this week,” A.J. says, “an hour and thirty minutes, and it’ll just keep going from there—maybe five rehearsals every week.”
“It’s a lot of time,” Rebecca says. “Most of our weekends are taken up with that, and the house isn’t as clean as it should be. But I’d rather him be able to do what he wants than to look back and be like, ‘my kitchen floor was clean.’”
What’s it like to see your child on stage? Victoria Buller says it’s “Super Exciting! I just… I feel like my heart is on stage.”
That’s the type of emotion that the Dayton Ballet’s Nutcracker has been eliciting from audiences for decades, and the tradition continues this holiday season.
The Dayton Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker opens on December 11th and it runs through the 21st of December. For more information and for tickets, visit DaytonPerformingArts.org