Today we’d like to introduce you to Luis Eduardo Gonzalez, a company member from The Joffrey Ballet who will be writing for us here! Naturally, his first post for us will have a Nutcracker theme, since it is that time of year. We look forward to hearing more from him throughout the season!
by Luis Eduardo Gonzalez
The annual occurrence of Nutcracker, for most dancers in the United States, has become as inevitable as Christmas or winter. Just like the holidays and the weather, people have different ways of approaching the seasonal change. Some dread the cold and feel lonely around the intensely marketed time of the year, while others start playing Christmas music and whip out a Christmas tree the day after Halloween. We all know the music, the story, the process; it is easy to give in to the monotony and start to dread your 27th show of Waltz of the Flowers before you’ve even opened. We’ve all felt this way at one point or another, and maybe not even just with Nutcracker. Getting caught up with the potential stagnancy that routine can bring is a difficulty that we are all susceptible to at any point in a dance career, or in any career. There are, however, moments that if approached in with the right perspective, and with enough attention, can remind us to live in the now, and bring us back to appreciating how lucky we are to do what we do. It is too easy to forget that we have a career, or rather a medium, through which we use our gifts to provide special moments, and feelings to other people.
The casting journey
Christopher Wheeldon choreographed a completely new version of The Nutcracker at The Joffrey Ballet last season, after almost thirty years of the Company performing Robert Joffrey’s version of the production. The project was high stakes, and an ambitious undertaking for him, for us, and for everyone involved. To make sure that we had enough time to bring his vision to life, the snow music was waiting for us as soon as we got back from summer break in August. There are four male soloists in his version of snow, and because the dancer I was learning got injured, I was now one of them, and for my second season in the Company it felt like a great opportunity. We rehearsed for a little over a month. Day in and day out, altering steps, repeating sequences over and over, and trying to make sure we were doing the steps the way Chris imagined they would look. Casting came out a few weeks before the performances, and my name was not on it. I was confused, disappointed, embarrassed, and maybe a bit angry. No one had talked to me, no one had given me notes on how I could have improved on the work; it was as if my work for the last month meant nothing, like it had just been erased. Looking back, it seems silly to get upset over one role. In the large scheme of things this was definitely not a matter of life or death, but being a professional dancer means that you are the product your selling. Attaching your self-worth to the roles that you do or don’t get happens almost naturally.
After a night with a little Malbec, and a call with my family, I realized that at I had a decision to make. I could give into righteous resignation, make myself a martyr in my own head, and give up or I could fight for an opportunity to grow through this. One very helpful thing that came up in my memory was my teacher telling me that when you fall, making excuses stops the process for figuring out what lead to the fall. Defending yourself from something that might hurt you in a way stops you from growing. If the situation was hurting me, then there must be something to learn. This made me think of all the opportunities that we as dancers sometimes don’t take full advantage of. The truth is that we love what we do, passionately. We know this because the career is too difficult and requires too much sacrifice to do it without love, and it is that passion that hypersensitizes a fear of not being allowed to do it. With that in mind it’s easy to see how it’s silly to let changes in circumstance (the ballet, the choreographer, who is teaching class, the role you’re dancing) affect how much joy you get out of doing something that has such a significant place in our hearts.
I remember the day that Chris came in to talk to the Company about the changes to the traditional story he wanted to see in his new version. The plot would now circle around the 1893 construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. The Land of the Sweets was re-envisioned as a still magical, but somehow more relatable and true wonderland of pavilions where the Waltz of the Flowers, was now the Fair Visitors, and Candy Cane, changed to Buffalo Bill. The best change he made, in my opinion was making Marie a humble immigrant girl in Chicago, raised by a single mother. Although the traditional story is beloved, and still heart warming the opulence of it was really not true to “the spirit of Christmas” but more importantly Chris’s nature.
The night after casting came out, Chris messaged me on Facebook. In a field like ours, where decisions are arbitrary, subjective, and unchallenged, unfortunately, it is rare for anyone in the front of the room about how that decision might affect a dancer and much less to reach out; again, this only speaks to the kind of person that that Chris is. In the message, he said that he believed in me, that he didn’t want me to feel like he’d given up on me, and that because we were so close to the performances he wanted to use a more experienced dancer for the first couple of shows. The improbability of the situation was not at all lost on me, and instead of feeling like I lost an opportunity, I now felt energized and encouraged to raise my own bar.
Growing as a dancer
The next day I went to the ballet masters and asked for feedback regarding how I could improve my approach to the role, and talked about specific places where I could be sharper or use different accents. I worked on the choreography on my own, applied different qualities to combinations in class, and visualized how my body could better reflect the music. Eventually, I finally got to go in for a rehearsal and show where my approach had improved. Soon after, five shows on the casting were altered, and now included my name. I was nervous before my first show, but very excited. Aside from the fact that it’s not often that boys get to dance to the music of snow, I now felt really connected to how that choreography had made me grow. It made for some of the most fulfilling dancing I had done thus far. I walked in to my evaluation a few days later, and the first thing my director said was “snow was good! I feel like you really found attack.” Although, getting positive feedback from your boss is always nice, the experience made me realize that the growth I experienced was not attained by craving anyone’s approval, but instead by focusing on how I could find joy and curiosity in pushing my own boundaries.
A sustainable viewpoint
Many dancers also view Nutcracker as time during which they can assess their progress in the Company. Some get to revisit old roles and see what they can add to their performance or how they can change their approach, others are granted new opportunities and get to expand their artistry in different directions, and some are taken out of roles that may not have suited them in the director’s eyes and put in others for which they may be better suited; “in the director’s eyes” being a key component of that statement. However, the only aspect that we as dancers can control in our trajectories through a company, is the respect we give ourselves, and the consistency of perspective with which we face our work every day. The continued development of strength that comes with having an honest work ethic, in my experience, is the only thing that can provide purpose, resilience, and longevity through success and through difficulty, in the unstable and often unpredictable career of a dancer. Regardless of what you’re dancing, or not dancing, what number show you’re on, how little you want to be in that Party Scene rehearsal, remember the joy in this career only comes when you allow yourself to bring your gifts in their fullest expression to all the work you are provided.
Joffrey’s Nutcracker opens tonight (12/1) and runs through 12/31. Tickets are available for both matinee and evening performances.
Contributor Luis Eduardo Gonzalez is originally from Bogota, Colombia, where he grew up before moving to Atlanta, Georgia. His training came primarily from the continued direction of Maniya Barredo, former prima ballerina of Atlanta Ballet, and current director of Metropolitan Ballet Theatre. Mr. Gonzalez has received the Star Student award at Regional Dance America’s SERBA, been awarded 3rd place at the Regional Youth American Grand Prix competition in 2008, given first place pas de deux at the American Ballet Competition in 2013, and selected to compete as the only representative of Colombia in the 2014 Jackson International Ballet Competition.
Mr. Gonzalez began his professional career with The Houston Ballet II, where he had the opportunity to dance works by Stanton Welch, among other renowned choreographers, as well as tour both nationally and internationally. At 18, he joined Orlando Ballet where he danced for three years and performed roles such as the Jester in Swan Lake, Peter in Peter and the Wolf, Ghoul’s trio in Vampire’s Ball, Franz’s friend in Coppelia, and Cavalier in the Sugar Plum Pas de deux in The Nutcracker.