Skipping, Falling, Smiling: An early holiday ballet memoir

You know people have been in The Nutcracker when they can dance to practically the whole score of music from the ballet or hum all the tunes from the top of their heads. With three casts and over a hundred children in every rehearsal, we repeated the same steps and heard the same music so many times that it is nearly impossible for us to not remember our parts for the rests of our lives.

In sixth and seventh grade at my school, I was chosen to be Marie, the Russian equivalent of Clara, in James Kudelka’s production of The Nutcracker. It was a long journey to play this role, or any role in this ballet for that matter. Thinking about my experiences as Marie brings back a flood of memories from both the studio and stage. And so, after looking through these, I begin yet another piece by a former Marie:

“Watch the food table!” the whole studio chanted as we scurried up an imaginary staircase, right behind each other’s heels.

“Behind the servants!” everyone shouted as we finished our zigzagging running sequence and braced ourselves for the long and somewhat dreaded girls’ dance. We smiled and twirled through our burning calves and feet as Ms T, our rehearsal director, gave us a torrent of corrections and the other casts watched from the sides. Night after night we had practiced this same dance, and yet there were always more details to remember, more lines to straighten, more toes to point.

Rehearsals in the late evening were long, and as young dancers we lost focus and determination more than once, which made it quite a tiring process. But no matter how stupid we acted, Ms T persisted in her efforts to teach us all our roles and never gave up on our abilities. An extraordinary director not only teaches you what steps to execute, but more importantly in a storyline, explains why and how your character does it. Ms T was such a director.

We were taught all the events and sequences of the ballet; but more importantly, Ms T gave us a complete background of our characters while giving us a chance to explore. She brought out the playful and feisty Marie inside all of us so that we could express her through ourselves. We were prepared inside and out to perform.

One of the hardest things that took a surprisingly good amount of concentration to do was fake crying. It wasn’t challenging enough to expect little girls to make bawling faces without bursting out into giggles; we also couldn’t look like we were just covering our faces and bobbing up and down. Marie and Misha are not the most agreeable pair, and another challenge was performing the fighting scenes with true ferocity. We shoved and pulled, and had to synchronize our cues so that a facial expression of surprise happened at the same time as a fake slap on the head or a leg goes out at the same time as a deliberate dive.

The first time we laid eyes on the nutcracker for real was pure excitement; however, actually holding it in our hands was a different story. It was very heavy and big to wrap our hands around, so dancing with it for the first time was quite nerve-wracking. I was terrified to drop or rip apart the fellow at the end of the little solo, because Misha and Marie grab hold of either end of the Nutcracker, and they swing around twice before she is flung to the floor. Ms Toto also brought in tiny foam tangerines that we had to secretly hide and reveal during Uncle Nikolai’s ‘present giving’. She repeatedly cautioned us so we weren’t hiding them behind viewable backs or throwing them to places unknown to our hands. The dancing too definitely had its challenges; but we were more accustomed to the pressure of learning new dance steps.

The battle scene was short but especially hectic. Our beds glided around; dogs, cats, and rats were running around with giant swords, bows, and horses; and a rooster and goat popped out of the old fashioned stove behind our beds waving around maces and flags. Of course we first only heard about the scene and practiced with mats for beds; pretending to jump over and around things. The cues were particularly difficult in this section because the music was very busy and there were many things we could only picture in our minds. Seeing how many people participated in this section made our heads spin because there were so many patterns that could easily collide with our paths with a little timing mistake. We had to flatten ourselves to the stove as cats whizzed over our bed and jump down from the toy chest right after they passed or we would get cut off by a stampede of either dogs or rats.

After over two months of intense rehearsing, we finally made our trip to the centre where we would put the pieces together with the company. We were star struck about being in the same room with the dancers that we saw onstage and in the newspapers. We clung on to Ms T’s words in the studio; we did not want to disappoint and get in the way of the pros. And practice really did make perfect, by this time we rarely dropped oranges and I wasn’t scared to skip around with the nutcracker anymore.

Naturally, we started with the overture, in which Peter the stable boy is sweeping the barn for the children’s party, and we make our entrance. We had only jumped and imagined the lift before, so actually getting swept up and sitting on a principal dancer’s shoulder was absolutely breathtaking. Just having the full cast around us built up an exciting atmosphere, and we were fired up for the dress rehearsals. At last we had arrived at the final stretch of finishing touches.

“If there is global warming, why is it so #!$*@ cold?!” said black Sharpie writing on a piece of paper taped to the door of the hair department. Underneath the daily question, the lone response in pencil read “what do you expect in Canada?” Unable to answer the question, I headed in to get my hair curled with hot rollers. Charles did everything from hair curling to wigs to fake beards; he always hummed to his playing iPod during his bustling hour of preparations.

It was half an hour before the start of Share the Magic dress rehearsal, and by this time I had laced up my lavender boots, finished half my makeup, and had set up my nightgown and slippers for the 90 second quick-change. My hair’s refusal to curl seemed to decrease that day and coming out from underneath my bonnet was a mass of black, shiny curls. At the 10 minute call, we all got into costume: pantaloons, petticoat, and then dress. The woolen fabric made everything poufy and the dress weighed heavily on our shoulders. The enthusiasm backstage was tremendous and I could feel everybody buzzing inside as the curtains opened and the orchestra began to play the very familiar music.

The first steps onto the stage were the hardest, but after being completely underneath the lights, I forgot everything about myself and became Marie. I didn’t have to think about any steps because my body was on automatic; all I had to do was perform, perform, perform.

As I fell backwards during the fight scene, I felt a jolt of pain in wrist, but continued on like it never happened. As we inched our way to girls’ dance, my legs felt like blocks of lead, and my head was broiling from underneath the bonnet and lights.

“Behind the servants!” a voice recited in my head as we hopped down the stairs, carefully tracking our way behind the dancers.

We danced with all our might; our big dresses offering a bit of drag and throwing us off from our spins; and grinned harder as we felt heavier underneath all the costume. ‘How in the world did I think it was hard before?’ a flash of thought came to my head as we heaved ourselves to the finish and got ready to sneakily accept the clementines from the boys. And so the show continued, but not without any first experiences and interesting incidents.

As I ran offstage for the quick-change, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw the children playing the poor family grabbing and nibbling some arrowroot cookies that were placed on the food table by the awesome stage crew before I left. Three women helped me; one took off my bonnet to reveal the pink ribbon that was neatly rolled underneath, one was undoing my dress and rehooking the lighter and airier nightgown, and one was tediously working on my boots.

We ran back onstage and lay boiling underneath our blankets as we waited for the battle scene. When we saw the Christmas tree grow in front of our eyes, I was amazed by its size and grandeur; with ornaments bigger than my head and pine needles covering the entire span of the stage. But that moment was soon replaced by the panic of the battle scene as I tugged on my pillow that a cat was unknowingly standing on and that I was supposed to be hitting the rat king with at that very moment. I was late, but managed, and we sat down on the bed for the transition to the beautiful snow scene.

The bed glided to the side of the stage and we smiled. And smiled. We heard the voices of people whispering their shouts to get the curtain moving, and I realized that it was stuck. The snow queen’s feet could be seen doing bourres through a little gap and the orchestra stopped playing after a while. “Darn, it felt like a real show,” my partner Leo said. Well, what are dress rehearsals for.

After the little mishap, we restarted the scene and continued. Being on the charming blue remote-controlled boat while paper snow floated down on us was truly magical. I saw the unicorns in their white leotards and pointe shoes, with their faces and backs covered in white and realized that I had it pretty easy. They would have to put more base on top of the white afterwards for the next act, and had about twenty minutes to accomplish it without much help.

I was disappointed to find that my hair had fallen flat after the first act, but enjoyed a good run of the second act in the Land of Sweets. We did less dancing, but got to watch everything from the best seats in the house: onstage. In the bows, I still find it unbelievable that Marie and Misha get the final curtain call; it was too generous and too special a thing to happen to me, but I was so very grateful that I got the experience.

The show was over in a blink, and I soon found myself in a lot of pain from my wrist. I could not move it sideways or up and down without wincing and our chaperone told me to ice. By the time I got home, my left hand was purple and was swollen to the size of a large kiwi; so my parents took me to the hospital. I hoped with all my soul that it would be ok and fortunately, after an x-ray it was concluded that I had a badly sprained wrist. I was sent off and told to just tape my left wrist for the performances.

I had two successful shows, both in which we had to switch handholds for some of the scenes due to the injury. A day later, my mom told me she got a call from the hospital saying that I actually had a fracture in my wrist and that I had to get a cast. I was horrified. Once again, I put all my mind power into positive thinking for this situation. I asked the doctor to please let me dance in the shows. After a long discussion, he mentioned that they had a new product for a removable splint that I could try out. It was covered card that was velcroed together and could be taken off at any time and still keeping your arm still for healing. I could dance as long as I wore the splint the whole rest of the time. I was so happy! When I arrived for the next warm-up in my blue arm, people gasped and were shocked at what the outcome would be, until I valiantly declared that I was able to dance in all my performances.

That is what I believe happened in my debut of the Nutcracker. There were many more incidents in my shows to come, most of the funny, some painful; and some maybe a tad bit embarrassing. The following are a few accounts of the untold stories of Marie.

One time after the overture, we were in the balcony at the top of the stairs and our Baba started making her way down. I followed after her, and the most unfortunate slip happened as my foot slid across the third step and I fell on my rear. To make matters worse, the momentum carried me down the narrow staircase and I went bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump all the way down on my bottom in probably two seconds flat. Leo was laughing behind me and Baba was a bewildered woman, asking me if I was all right. I smiled, and patted my petticoat as I explained, “Padding.”

I soon found out that the nightgown that is so pretty, has a nasty habit of tripping underneath you when you jump. I attempted a two feet jump into bed, but the gown had its own ideas, therefore my feet got caught and my shins ended up taking the impact from my jump onto the edge of the wooden frame. As we ‘slept’, I rocked myself as discreetly as possible on my side to get rid of the pain. On that same show, during battle scene, I ran around a bed and found myself in the midst of a dog parade. One of them was apparently blind because it swung its jousting stick across and I almost yelped as it caught me right on the back of my head.

The crazy waiters during the feast bring out a tiny purple table, and then pull it out so it extends all the way across the stage. As fantastic as it is, this scene can cause a number of problems. A lever that one of them engages makes two candelabras and a silver covered platter pop out from the table. When the candles usually got stuck, I gave the stick a little slap as I ran to the fake turkey in the platter so that the rest of it bounces out. On this occasion, nothing wanted to appear so we had to reach our hands into a black hole in the middle of the table, and pretend that we had magically found a drumstick. During the food fight, we threw plastic broccoli and potatoes across the stage to be picked up later. It was a good system. This time however, one of my edible ammunitions had managed to direct itself at somebody backstage and I could see their reaction as they were pelted with what I believe was a carrot. I had to hide my laughter behind a mask of anger as Marie and Misha were having another quarrel. It was one of the hardest things I had to cope with onstage.

Last but not least is another nightgown predicament. In a part of the second act know as the Lamb Dance, the twins have a duet together. The series of steps goes something like this: coupe, pas de chat, passé attitude derriere. Now this had to be executed very quickly and this certain show either my costume was feeling extra clingy or I didn’t hold up my dress high enough. I jumped the pas de chat, anticipated what was going on with my dress, and basically landed in a grand plie on one foot. The result was an extremely loud “thunk!” when I landed. Once again, Leo was laughing at me. Later Ms T asked me if I was ok because it could’ve sounded like I broke something and my mom told me she heard my “thunk!” from the back of the fifth ring. Oh, how I loved that nightgown.

Performing this show never got boring because no matter how prepared you were, there were always little things that went wrong in a show whether you liked it or not. There have been countless experiences that I have gained with Marie. I am so grateful to have been given an opportunity to perform in the Nutcracker with the amazing dancers that I have for friends. And I believe that even as Al, Liv and I have moved on into grade nine, we will always have a piece of young Marie with us.

As the holiday season nears, we have caught many glimpses of younger students rehearsing for their part in the tradition that is The Nutcracker. It is all very nostalgic and reminded of this, a memoir of dancing as Marie, written by me three years ago. (Names were changed.)Thanks for reading.

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7 Comments

Filed under Academia, Ballet, Poems, Essays, and Things, Words of No Wisdom

7 responses to “Skipping, Falling, Smiling: An early holiday ballet memoir

  1. Lovely. I grew up dancing and loved your description of the hectic backstage scramble. I always smiled knowing that to the audience it was just a pretty show… they couldn’t see the costumes flying, dancers swapping spots, that thrilling rush behind the scenes.

  2. Ballet is such a cruel sport; the productions, from the audience side, are so often such wonderful things.

    In Canada? The Utah Ballet (Ballet West, now, I think) was the first professional company I saw perform the piece, and of course the first one sticks with you. I’ve seen a half-dozen professional productions, and another dozen of other stripes since.

    Which companies do you think do it well, from a dancer’s view? From the audience view?

    • Somehow I missed replying to your comment earlier when I read it initially, so I do apologize for that.

      Well, the Nutcracker is a very popular tradition and almost every ballet company has their own version by different choreographers. To be honest I never saw Nutcracker live anywhere else, just videos of other companies but the version danced here is definitely one of my favourites. It’s particularly engaging for the audience because it’s a really big production so all the elements of props, costumes and sets definitely make it exciting as there’s so much to watch onstage and tons of visual effects. Every dancer has preferences of companies and that certainly affects their thoughts on performances. It really just depends on style; the production I like might not be one other dancers appreciate – I like the Royal Ballet and ABT so I enjoy their productions, and most likely would no matter what. For Nutcracker, I think it is also important to have cohesive group of dancers to create the magic if the show doesn’t have the same grandeur as those of large companies which I why I also like the Ballet Jorgen’s and Les Grands Ballets’ production.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comment, I hope that contained some insight!

  3. Pingback: The BIG Awards Extravaganza! (1/4) | thebookybunhead

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