The Nutcracker – From Student To Professional

Cara Marie Gary backstage before Nutcracker

Cara Marie Gary backstage before Nutcracker

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.

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Behind The Scenes At Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker


From left: Dawn Atkins, Lauren Herfindahl and Ashley Ellis of Boston Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

by Ashley Ellis

Nutcracker season is upon us, which means many things; the holiday season is upon us, temperatures are dropping, and for us dancers, hearing the lovely Sugar Plum and Russian music as we walk through the stores to do our holiday shopping.

And many more times as we head back into the theater.

Here in Boston seeing this ballet is a holiday tradition for so many people in and around the city. And to make sure that everyone has a chance to see this holiday classic, Boston Ballet offers a total of 44 shows this year. It is a daunting number to say the least—for everyone involved in the production. However, besides the obvious fatigue that accompanies such a rigorous schedule, there are benefits that come with performing everyday—and it can be up to ten shows a week. Needless to say, one tends to become quite comfortable on the stage and strength is gained without even realizing it.


Anaïs Chalendard, Ashley Ellis and Seo Hye Han of Boston Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

This combination of comfort and strength provides wonderful opportunities for growth as an artist. Dancers have a chance to explore their approach to the technique being executed, musicality and more. On top of this, it is a time when many of the principals and soloists travel to appear as guest artists in other places. This gives even more opportunity for company members to perform some of the more demanding or spotlighted roles.

These opportunities can be exciting, but it is always important to remember that with this strenuous schedule and colder weather, everyone has to take extra care in staying healthy. Injuries and sick days do creep their way into the picture, but we do our best to avoid them by frequent visits to our wonderful physical therapists, resting when possible, and nourishing our bodies.

In Mikko Nissinen’s production of the Nutcracker I alternate between the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Dew Drop, and Arabian. I would say that dancing the Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum is my favorite role, and I truly enjoy the time onstage with my partner in this classy and regal pas de deux.

Apart from these shows I will make a few trips through the Nutcracker season to perform in different places. It can be a wonderful change of scenery during such a long stretch of one production, and when I come back things usually feel a bit more fresh. In addition, sometimes I will do these guest appearances with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a long time, so these trips have an extra bonus!


Ashley Ellis (center) and the Boston Ballet performing The Nutcracker. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

I must give a special shout-out to the members of the corps de ballet. Many, if not most of them, are on stage every day without even a single show off. So, while performing from the day after Thanksgiving straight through New Years Eve, how does one have time to enjoy this joyous season without going mad? Well, between holiday shopping and performing it is tricky, but we do find ways to create a festive atmosphere and keep the atmosphere light.

If someone has a chance to pass through the dressing rooms at the Boston Opera House they would most likely find music playing, Secret Santa gifts, sweets (yes, even us ballerinas treat ourselves), and lots of supportive talk. We all get grumpy at one point or another, but the dancers are so supportive of one another—rooting each other on as someone does a role for the first, or even the 40th time!

Even though most dancers have a tendency to cringe when they hear the music of the Russian dance for the umpteenth time in Macy’s, there is always a magical feeling when hearing it along with the rest of Tchaikovsky’s score. Especially when it’s being played live by an orchestra—along with the telling of this classic story.

In the end we all come together and we survive the season as a family. Ringing in the New Year is even more exciting because it means we have made it through another “Nut” Season!

Boston Ballet presents Mikko Nissinen’s Nutcracker through December 31st. You can get tickets through their website.

Boston Ballet's Ashley Ellis

Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis

Contributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.

She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.

Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s  La  Bayadère;  Marius  Petipa’s  Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel  Fokine’s  Les  Sylphides;  Rudolf  Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s  Serenade,  Coppélia,  Symphony  in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.


Closer To The Edge Of Dance – Zephyr’s Michelle Kranicke

Michelle Kranicke. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Michelle Kranicke. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Assistant Editor Rachel Hellwig interviews Michelle Kranicke from Zephyr – a Chicago-area experimental dance company that has been around for over 20 years…

What inspired you to start Zephyr?

I was very young when I started Zephyr so the reasons behind why I founded the company don’t really resonate with Zephyr’s current aesthetic and mission.  What is more important to me right now is what inspires me to continue.  And that is my continued fascination with creating work, dance specifically, and trying to push beyond known ideas and preconceptions about what the art form can be.


What’s it like to be artistic director, choreographer, and performer all at once?

I have been all three for so long I guess I am not sure what it is like to not be artistic director, choreographer and performer all at once.  I think the roles of director, choreographer, and performer are linked, each having their own specific requirements and priorities.  For example, in my role as director I try to make sure that both Zephyr’s productions and its education work are an extension of the company’s mission.  To that end I try to make sure company class is structured so that dancers are not only learning technique, but also developing an innate understanding of Zephyr’s aesthetic so that when I am working as a choreographer the performers I am working with have all the tools they need. Regarding Zephyr’s long history of arts integrated education programming, working with schools and students using movement and the creative process to access knowledge and understanding, Zephyr trains its teaching artists in the same clear detailed manner with which its aesthetic is presented.  As far as my performer self, that is often the most straightforward role, and one where I am deeply connected.


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Hubbard Street 2 Kicks Off The Season With A Challenging Triple Play


Hubbard Street Second Company

Hubbard Street 2 Dancer Andrea Thompson. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014.

by Andrea Thompson

I am now in my second year with Hubbard Street 2 (HS2), and it has been quite the season so far. We’ve already created two new works through the International Commissioning Project (IC Project) which we just premiered on tour at Broward College, and we’re working on our third right now, which will debut at the Harris Theater as part of Eat + Drink to the Beat on December 16. Not to mention HS2 also collaborated with Hubbard Street’s main company and The Second City on the world premiere of The Art of Falling back in October. Here’s how all of that action has gone down in the studio:

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Ode To Nut Vets


Milwaukee Ballet’s Valerie Harmon, photos by Rachel Malehorn

by Rachel Malehorn

Dancers! The troops of Nutcracker, we

Aspire to revisit, we strive to be

A tireless force of Christmas cheer

To fill the stages year after year.

We dance in roles we’ve always known

From smallest mouse to Prince on Throne.

What keeps us warm onstage as Snow,

Or feeds our need to improve…to grow?

Please don’t forget: show twenty-two

When you prepare for your pas de deux,

More like than not, in row twenty-three

A smile and two shining eyes will be

Watching you, this child enthralled.

Ballet! No over-crowded mall

Or cartoon special on TV

Could fill her heart with so much glee.

It’s old to you but new to her,

The costumes, lights and sets confer

Grand majesty and pomp and ‘stance;

For you, it’s just a boring dance.

No matter who you are or where,

We dance for audiences there.

They buy their tickets to watch our shows

But no one in his seat will know

Exactly what we have in mind;

To our thoughts, they are completely blind.

And so! An opportunity:

To reinvent my inner chemistry.

Today I sat up straight and said,

“The steps are marching through my head,

But PNB and ABT, SFB and Joffrey

All with different choreography.

But one thing never changes: score!

Tchaikovsky’s genius doesn’t bore…

Then I craved it, had to know:

“What other music for this show?”

And lo! (O thank you Internet)

My uttermost desires were met.

Perk up – my plums, my Cavs, my flakes,

And listen to this mix…those breaks!

A soundscape filled with classic tunes

Yet unexpected flair; I swoon

And smile to think of this instead -

Onstage, these songs inside my head:

We are a dancing multitude, we

Are diverse as art should be.

Each Sugar Plum herself unique,

Why not an inner techno beat?

And so, my friends, just for your pleasure,

I have compiled this list of treasures.

If you need an inner smile,

I hope these will be worth your while.

Variations on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

Pentatonix – A la Bobby McFerrin, this version features an arrangement almost entirely comprised of voices

Berlin Symphony Orchestra – this “Red Baron” remix has a sweet driving beat and plenty of synth. If you like Manheim Steamroller, you’ll love this.

Pomplamoose – If you’re feeling spaced out and would like to indulge in your otherworldly mood, listen to this version. You will feel as far away from this world as you already feel from reality.

August Burns Red – When you just need to get pumped up, and your favorite thing is lots of electric guitar.

Duke Ellington – His version of Sugar Plum Fairy is called “Sugar Rum Cherry,” and sounds just as sweet. This is part of his well-known arrangement of the rest of the Nutcracker Suite, which I would recommend if you need to class it up.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – For you, if you get inspired by listening to an incredibly talented banjo player.

Modern Mandolin Quartet – If you prefer mandolins.

Flex and the Bully – Ok, some of you might not know what dubstep is. I might describe it as an intravenous caffeine injection. Weird to listen to before a performance of The Nutcracker? Depends on who you are.

Woody Phillips – Love power tools? Love ballet? Listen to this!

The Barking Dogs – Love dogs? You get the idea…

Glove and Boots – Well, this is just silly. Gorilla sings Sugar Plum?

Brian Setzer – This isn’t the Sugar Plum Fairy, but it is a pretty great big band medley of Nutcracker favorites.

The Invincible Czars – A band worth listening to, especially if you are a sucker for bands that have formidable “shticks” that actually work. For Indie music lovers and people who love to hear classics totally reinvented and performed by talented, hip, young musicians.

Blue Claw Philharmonic – And finally, this album has as many options as you could ever want: for Sugar Plum alone, there is Dance EDM (Electronic Dance Music,) Jazz Big Band, Country Dance Music, Music Box (as in a tiny little music box given to children,) Dubstep, Grand Piano, Mashup, Metal Dubstep, Trap Hip Hop, Classical Guitar, Metal Remix, and Hip Hop.

Whatever your inspiration for your Nutcracker season, I hope at least these selections will put a smile on your face and allow you to listen with fresh ears to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score. Happy Holidays!

Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker will run from December 13th to December 27th.

Rachel Malehorn bioOriginally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Contributor Rachel Malehorn received her formal training at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and continued on to graduate from the prestigious Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program.

Since joining the Milwaukee Ballet, Malehorn has enjoyed performing works created by Val Caniparoli, Petr Zahradnícek, Mark Godden, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Jerry Opdenaker, Matthew Neenan and Alejandro Cerrudo. She has also performed as a semi-finalist in Palm Desert for the Dancing Beneath the Stars Competition, participated in the Northwest Professional Dance Project and danced with Texture Contemporary Ballet.

This is Malehorn’s eighth season with the Milwaukee Ballet.


The Washington Ballet Takes On “America’s First Great Ghost Story”

Washington Ballet AD

Septime Webre, photo by Dean Alexander

by Matt de la Peña

It’s a ghoulish Halloween morning in Chicago (winds reaching up to 50 mph, hail projected for the afternoon) and Septime Webre is talking America’s “first great ghost story.” The Washington Ballet artistic director, now in his 15th season at the helm of one of the country’s most versatile dance companies, is in the midst of his latest creation, an adaptation of Washington Irving’s spine-tingling classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Webre has found a distinctive niche during his tenure at WB, a company he took over from the legendary Mary Day in 1999. His vision of The Nutcracker — set in 1882 Georgetown — has become a must-see event of the season. The Washington City Paper called his adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “an incredibly creative spectacle, pure and simple.” His adaptations of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises have proved to be ambitious ventures, offering a brand new vision of two American classics.

Webre and I spoke at length about Sleepy Hollow, his fascination with literature, and his plans for Halloween. Below are excerpts of our interview.

Can you tell me about Sleepy Hollow and how it came to be?

So about five years ago I launched a project called the American Experience. It’s a project to develop full-length ballets using great works of American literature. It seemed to me that our American story has not really been told in the ballet medium. [The Washington Ballet] started by adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, then last year I adapted [Ernest] Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Sleepy Hollow is the third installment about America’s first great ghost story.

That’s interesting you say that our American story has not been told; it seems odd that we, as Americans, wouldn’t take more interest in our own stories when it comes to ballet.

American ballet came into its ascendancy under Balanchine and the aesthetic has been abstract — a modernist aesthetic. So much of our stories are still stories written by old dead white guys. They’re so Eurocentric. The [American Experience] project is an effort to develop works in a different direction. It’s been fascinating to build these new ballets from scratch. In the case of the Hemingway and in the Gatsby projects, those works are so rich; it was a process of editing out information. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, it’s a thrilling, twenty-page short story. It’s very concise. The process has been the opposite; it’s been one of exuberance and extrapolation. It struck me early on that the headless horseman is haunting Ichabod Crane but one doesn’t know why. So I’ve developed Ichabod’s back-story. In a moment of anger, Ichabod picks up a sword and decapitates [a British soldier], essentially creating the Headless Horseman. The haunting is a Karmic guilt that Ichabod carries with him through his life. He moves to Sleepy Hollow to escape that torment.

Your fascination with 19th and 20th century literature is well known. You’ve created The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, and you’re in the midst of tackling Sleepy Hollow. What intrigues you about those particular time periods?

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Or, Why I Still Love Nutcracker)

atlanta ballet's nutcracker

Alessa Rogers as Marya in The Nutcracker, 2012. Photo by C. McCullers

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.

Atlanta Ballet

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker. Photo by C. McCullers.

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

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