by Cara Marie Gary
Over the past twenty-three years I have gathered many memories around Christmas time, but the one that stands out amongst the others starts with a magical event that has forever made an impact on my life and has left me with new found feelings of eagerness and desire.
The time had finally come, the chilly December air made the girls run quickly through the green backstage door of the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the night of The Nutcracker performance and I, along with other aspiring young dancers, were waiting for the curtain to go up.
After anxiously skipping up and down the long hallway filled with dressing rooms, the moment had finally arrived where the burgundy curtain was lifted and Tchaikovsky’s music filled the theater. I wore a red and black solider costume adorned with strings of gold and stood backstage between two tall curtains. The joy of the holidays filled the air and crept back to the small spot where I was standing. I experienced a feeling of awe as I observed the older girls dancing before me. The tall girl with a radiant smile and a blue dress, who had the role of Clara, stood out to me. She moved with elegance as she danced across the stage; I longed to dance just like her one day.
As I executed my role during the battle scene I attempted to keep the graceful vision of Clara in mind. Staring out at the anonymous silhouettes of the strangers in the audience, I felt as if everything was perfect. The feeling of wonder bubbled inside of me as I took that final bow. I knew from this December night that I wanted to pursue dance, and learn how to leap and twirl like the tall girl in the blue dress. For me this memory combines the joy of Christmas and the motivation I had discovered to pursue a new found passion.
As all dancers know, The Nutcracker is a classic ballet that takes place every year during the holiday season. Sixteen years after my first magical experience I’m still dancing in The Nutcracker production, but now as a professional dancer with The Joffrey Ballet. There is a drastic difference between performing this ballet as a student and performing it as a professional dancer.
Students often go through an audition process to be a part of The Nutcracker. It’s an exciting moment where you get to apply what you’ve been learning in ballet class. Normally students only get casted to learn one or two roles and they spend the next several months meticulously rehearsing the part(s). Instructors often take more time to teach the choreography because children and young adults need specific guidance to execute the movement correctly. After months of hard work, students will have the chance to perform in a few shows. They have to wait until next year to audition again and learn a new role.
As a child I performed as a Soldier, Mother Ginger’s Polichinelle, Party Girl and Angel. After training for several years I started dancing more difficult roles like Colombine doll, Mirliton, Snow pas de deux, and Grand de deux. In my ballet school’s production the younger Clara transformed into an older version of herself and danced as the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy. I always wanted to be the younger version of Clara, but never fulfilled this role as a child. However, I am grateful for my performance experience as a student because it helped give me a solid foundation for my career.
Now, years later, when I hear the first commercial with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music I groan because I know it’s that time of year again! I can’t speak for everyone, but most professional dancers have a “love-hate” relationship with The Nutcracker. When most dancers hear this music, they automatically find themselves humming along or mentally marking the steps to the selection of music. The most frequent commercials often use the Russian Trepak or Sugar Plum Fairy variation music. However, the rest of the score can be heard as background music in almost every store one enters for the next two months. Although we “hate” these moments, The Nutcracker often holds a special place in our hearts and we’re eager to participate in the magical experience once again.
Performing in The Nutcracker as a professional dancer is much different than performing as a student. Professionals audition for a company, but once a member they no longer have an audition process for the production. Role responsibility is posted and it is very common for a professional to learn multiple roles. For example, I learn ten different roles in The Joffrey Ballet’s production. Last year, I got to fulfill my childhood dream of dancing as the young Clara. This year, I have an exciting opportunity to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy. My other roles include: Maid, Colombine doll, two Snowflake spots, Chinese, Mirliton, and two Flower spots. It is challenging to learn multiple roles, but a requirement of professionals.
Compared to students, professionals have less time to prepare for The Nutcracker. We don’t have months to rehearse because we have other repertoire and many performances before this particular winter production. A professional dancer must be able to learn fast and retain information for each ballet. I’ve found that there is less specific guidance on how to execute the choreography. Instead we are given more artistic freedom. The material is set, but it is up to the dancer to find nuances that cause our dancing to have a more luxurious quality.
It is often difficult for dancers to adapt from a “student mode” to a “professional mode” of rehearsal process and performance. Switching from a student mindset to a professional mindset was a difficult transition for me. Ballet was no longer just a passion, it also became my career. If I could offer advice to the younger generation of dancers who aspire to dance professionally it would be to:
- Learn Quickly. You will have less time to learn and rehearse the choreography for The Nutcracker or other productions. When new to a company, the majority of the company will already knows their version of The Nutcracker. It is important for new dancers to take the responsibility to learn and retain information quickly. I found that asking stage management for a video was helpful in learning the patterns for corps work in sections like the Snow Scene or Waltz of the Flowers.
- Ask Questions. It is important be respectful when transitioning from a student to a professional. However, being respectful doesn’t mean one has to be shy. It is essential to ask questions if you are unsure of the material. I would encourage others to not be afraid to ask fellow dancers for help. If you are learning a role that someone has already performed, then take advantage of their knowledge. Politely ask them questions about the choreography, sequences, patterns, and musicality.
- Set Goals for Yourself. As a student, you constantly work hard in hopes of becoming a professional dancer. Once at a professional level it is important for dancers to not become comfortable or complacent. Dancing eight hours a day can be mentally and physically exhausting. It is important to take care of yourself and set personal goals to keep you motivated towards excellence.
The Joffrey Ballet has performances of The Nutcracker through Sunday, December 28th at The Auditorium Theater in Chicago. Tickets can be purchased through their website.
Contributor Cara Marie Gary is a native of Belton, South Carolina. She joined The Joffrey Ballet in July 2012. Prior to joining The Joffrey Ballet, Ms. Gary danced with American Ballet Theatre’s ABTII and was an apprentice with Orlando Ballet. Ms. Gary began her formal ballet training at International Ballet Academy in Greer, South Carolina, under Hennadii Bespechnyi and Vlada Kvsselova. Ms. Gary received additional training at summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre, Brianskv Saratoga Ballet Center, Ukrainian Academy of Dance South Carolina Governors School, Ballet Spartanburg, and Chautauqua Institution. Ms. Gary graduated with honors from Belton-Honea Path High School and is currently pursuing a Business Administration degree online through North Greenville University.
In 2010, Ms. Gary was a competitor in the IX USA International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi. She was a top twelve finalist in the Youth America Grand Prix National Finals in 2008 and 2009. She also received the overall Grand Prix Award in the 2009 YAGP regional semi-finals. In 2006, she was awarded a Diploma of Laureate at the VI Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition held in Kiev, Ukraine.
Ms. Gary has had the opportunity to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Ms. Gary has performed the title role in classical ballets such as The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Don Quixote, Paquita, Markitanka pas de six, and Coppelia. Her repertoire with ABT II includes roles in the Flame of Paris pas de deux, Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, Antony Tudor’s Continuo, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Stars and Stripes pas de deux, Jessica Lang’s Vivace Motifs, Roger Vanfleteren’s Pavlovsk, Jodi Gate’s A Taste of Sweet Velvet, Aszure Barton’s Barbara, and Edward Liang’s Ballo Per Sei. Ms. Gary has performed roles in new choreography by Robert Hill. Her repertoire with Orlando Ballet also consists of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake.