by Alessa Rogers
For most ballet dancers, the holiday season means Nutcracker as much as it does Santa and presents under the tree. It’s a tradition- something that we know will be there, that we can count on every December. But we can also count on that dreaded moment of walking into any coffee shop, bookstore or mall from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day and hearing the Waltz of the Flowers playing on repeat. It’s enough to drive many dancers absolutely crazy. Nutcracker is not without its flaws and the first Nutcracker rehearsals of the year- some as early as September- are always the scene of good-natured grumbling. Dancers love to hate Nutcracker. But despite the endless repetition, the strain on our bodies after many consecutive shows, being away from our families for the holidays and the music that we can’t get seem to get away from, maybe this year we should have a different perspective on Nutcracker, one that’s a little less Scroogey.
Benefits Of Nutcracker For Dance Companies
After all, ballet companies depend on Nutcracker to keep them afloat. 72% of total tickets sales for the entire 2013-2014 season at Atlanta Ballet came from Nutcracker tickets. That’s over two million dollars in revenue that can go towards putting on financially risky but perhaps more inspiring (to dancers) repertoire later in the season. While we might wish that audiences would crave those expensive mixed rep shows and cutting-edge choreographers as much as we do, maybe we should try to be more grateful that Nutcracker, at the very least, fills the seats.
Last year, almost 50,000 people came to see Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker. In an economy where support of the arts can be sluggish that is incredibly gratifying. People want to come to this ballet! So while I might groan when I hear the Sugarplum music on every other commercial on TV, when the curtain goes up I have to remember that the people in the audience chose to be there and it is my job to make it memorable. It should be an honor to the dancers that the audience chose to spend their holiday at the ballet. This might be the only ballet they see the whole year and it might very well be the first time they have ever seen ballet at all. So regardless of if this is my 30th and last Nutcracker of the season, it is something that I remind myself before every single show- that for somebody out there, it is their first time. You never know how one performance might affect and inspire someone. Think of how many of us dancers got our first exposure to ballet by seeing the magic of Nutcracker!
Benefits Of Nutcracker For Dancers
But there are more personal reasons why I love Nutcracker. There is a singular camaraderie between dancers during a long grueling run. We take care of each other and cheer each other on in a very special way. It’s such a pleasure to watch my friends display their virtuosity since not many shows let dancers loose the way they get to in the second act divertissements like Russian and Arabian. It is exciting to watch my coworkers grow from year to year and see a fresh interpretation of a role when someone gets a new part. There is also something more relaxed in working hard for a show we’ve done hundreds of times before. We sit in the front of rehearsal for hours on end and we laugh so hard- maybe we’re just losing it a little bit but it’s fun too. Being in the theater is the best time, of course, when everything comes together, when the holiday spirit is infectious. During tech week I try to sit from many different seats in the audience to watch the rehearsals- it’s a different experience every time.
Doing 6 roles in 30 performances in one month means I get to dance a lot. It’s one of the best aspects of Nutcracker. The part I’ve done longest, Marya (Clara) I have been doing at Atlanta Ballet since 2006. It was originally a student role and has since been upgraded for a company dancer. I am the only person to have done Marya in both iterations of the role. So how do I stay artistically motivated when doing a role I’ve done for so long? There is a challenge in keeping it fresh. Especially for a role like Marya, being spontaneous in the interactions with the other characters is crucial. I think it is important to not form habits in terms of how I respond to another character because if I do I run the risk of becoming rigid and unbelievable. Allowing myself to change things up a bit (which our director encourages) and play with the nuances makes the ballet feel new everyday. And it is kind of magical what a live orchestra and an amazing stage crew can do for you- on opening night, I do sort of feel like I am a 12 year old girl again on Christmas day.
Nutcracker is a show that dancers perform again and again with little variation and while that can seem mundane it can also be a benchmark for showing improvement from year to year. Having one part that you can refine is like having a project that you get to keep working on to make better. It will never be perfect but sometimes it is satisfying to see just how much stronger I can be in twelve months and it gives me a chance to evaluate my growth from the past season. I might be doing the same role I’ve done for nine years but I want to know that each year is better than the year before. No show is any less important than another. I don’t want to just “get through” Nutcracker. Nutcracker is, like any other ballet, a chance to improve as a dancer, actor and artist and it is a gift to be able to be on stage so many times. An added bonus is that because Nutcracker is so ingrained in my body, I don’t need to focus so much on the choreography and counts and I can be more free to let go and just dance and have fun with my co-workers.
And besides, when it comes down to it, no show is the same. As much as I might strive for consistency that is not going to happen! It’s live theater so I just have to accept that sometimes I fall on my face, sometimes a snow headpiece might end up wound in the drop, sometimes a baby mouse is going to run off stage with the very prop I need and I just have to go with it.
Soon I will be moving into the Fox Theater- the 85 year old theater of spectacular Moorish design that has flickering star lights embedded in the ceiling. My snacks, my pillow, my bathrobe will all come with me. It will be my home for the next month- a month where everyday becomes Christmas. There is a different energy than when we move in for any other show perhaps because we will spend 12 hours a day for 4 weeks here. It’s a day of celebration as we greet stage crew that we haven’t seen in months, take in the musty smell of the backstage, breathe in all the history of the place. The dancers immediately string up Christmas lights in our dressing rooms. We keep the long days fun by playing silly games and Secret Santa. We have favorite nap spots within the theater. We know exactly where to get mulled cider after the show. It feels like home.
I figure if I am lucky, I will have maybe ten more of these. Ten more years of moving into the Fox Theater, ten more years of hearing the instruments tune up and seeing the rapt expression on a little girl’s face in the front row, ten more years of hiding a tiny stuffed elf into each other’s tutus. This then is the gift- to experience Nutcracker not as something that must be counted down until the last show, but as a gift given to dancers to be cherished. So this year, as I sit and watch the hundredth party scene rehearsal of the season, I will try to be grateful that I get to spend my holidays like this- surrounded by friends, doing what I love, bringing magic and joy to thousands of people.
Contributor Alessa Rogers began her dance training with Daphne Kendall and left home at fourteen to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. Upon graduation she spent one season with North Carolina Dance Theatre II before joining Atlanta Ballet where she has been for the past eight years.
Favorite roles at Atlanta Ballet include Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, Margaret in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s The Exiled, Lucy in Michael Pink’s Dracula, Ophelia in Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, Lover Girl in David Bintley’s Carmina Burana, and Princess Irene in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin.
She has performed works by Jorma Elo, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin, Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Hampson, Dwight Rhoden and Tara Lee. She has been a guest artist with the National Choreographers Initiative in California and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, N.C.
In her spare time she likes to read, write, cook vegetables, meditate, travel and rock climb.