As the seasons begin to shift and brisk air heralds the start of the holiday season, ballet dancers across the nation are preparing for annual productions of The Nutcracker. Thousands will flock to local theaters to see the production, dressed in their holiday best (I’ve noticed it’s mostly an unusual amount of plaid). An unspoken bond of community, tradition and spirit will fill the Community Center Theater as patrons gather, but what’s happening behind the curtain? What inspires these groups of artists to polish their sugar-coated choreography year after year?
For the thirty or so professional dancers in the Sacramento Ballet, it might be simple to just say that it’s our job to do so. As with most all other professional ballet companies throughout the country, ticket sales from The Nutcracker help financially support us for the rest of our ballet season. However, for us dancers, the ritual of rehearsing and performing the festive production is much more complex and personal.
When I was 10 years old, my mother carted me to a local audition for The Nutcracker on Long Island, New York, where I grew up. Although I had been lucky enough to have been exposed to amazing ballet productions at such a young age, I had no idea what it meant to be a performing member of a ballet. With ill-fitted tights and a large personality, I snagged the role of the Nutcracker Prince and remember being quite proud and completely naïve as to how such an opportunity would shape the rest of my life. Throughout the next few weeks, I practiced my steps, made friends with the other children, and diligently rehearsed my pantomime solo in the beginning of Act II (which I still remember because of a song I’d sing in my head to help me address the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court of delicacies). I have very vivid memories of that period of my life — watching the seasoned dancers rehearse their difficult choreography, feeling the red faux-velvet fabric of my soldier costume, cowering with embarrassment as my mother applied make-up to my already non-masculine face, and feeling true happiness when I bowed alongside the other dancers.
After my final performance that year I cried for many days. No matter how many times my parents tried to console me, I never thought that I would ever feel as fulfilled again. But The Nutcracker is as perennial as the grass, and for the next 20 plus years, I have been able to regain that sense of wonder each year and have had the privilege to spread that intangible joy to a younger generation of performers.
Although all dancers have their own unique story of how and when they began performing the holiday ballet, there is a unity that we share, which is to inspire. As the dancers of the Sacramento Ballet rehearse this week in the theater, preparing for opening night alongside one of the largest cast of children in the world, I am reminded of my 10-year-old self, who with so much enthusiasm and wonder dreamed of a more beautiful and magical world in which to live and dance.
To me, The Nutcracker ballet is so much more than a tradition…it is a pure example of how dreams can come true.
Ron Cunningham’s The Nutcracker returns to the Community Center Theater, December 10-23! For tickets and showtimes, click here.