5 Veteran Ballet Dancers on What It Takes to Survive Nutcracker
Few people who are busier during the holidays than corps members of American ballet companies. December is officially Nutcracker season—a company's chance to earn a huge chunk of their revenue for the year, and a dancer's chance to go a little, ahem, nuts, waltzing and swallowing fake snow night after night for weeks on end.
But Nutcracker can also be an opportunity like no other, and for some corps members, it's the highlight of their year. Five dancers told us what helps them get through it all.
Kimberly Marie Olivier of San Francisco Ballet
Olivier, here in SFB's Mirliton divertissement, appreciates getting to dance so many roles during Nutcracker. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
Years dancing Nutcracker at SFB: 9
How the production has changed: "Helgi has changed some of Act II, and now the dancers all sit onstage during the Grand Pas. At first, my thought was, 'I don't want to get cold watching someone else dance.' However, it's quite epic to be up close cheering on the principals. I mean, imagine Sofiane Sylve looking you in the eye and smiling as she's about to turn around and jump up on to Tiit Helimits' shoulders!"
Go-to Nutcracker fuel: "Urban Remedy has all the answers! Also a Vietnamese spot called Dragon Eats has light, fresh fueling choices. The Green Cabbage Salad with tofu or Fresh Spring Rolls are my go-tos. Also, I usually have fruit nearby—an apple, banana or persimmon. When I get home, it usually doesn't matter so much what I eat, unless I'm having a hard time managing my weight (real talk)."
How she keeps performances fresh: "I enjoy Nutcracker because it's the time that I get to dance the most. In Flowers, right before I run on, I do a funny dance to make the dancer behind me or across from me laugh somehow. During Snow Scene, I make animal noises, only loud enough to make the girl I pass chuckle."
Best Nutcracker memory: "Seeing two of my dear friends perform Mirlitons during the finale as their long ribbons get knotted together. I laughed so hard. One was not amused at all, and the other did her best to pretend it was intentional!"
Paige Adams of Ballet West
Adams avoids Nutcracker burnout by remembering that every performance is someone's first ballet. Photo by Beau Pearson, courtesy Ballet West.
Years dancing Nutcracker at Ballet West: 8
How she keeps performances fresh: "Sometimes I will pick something super-specific to focus on for an entire show, like my fingers or juicy pliés."
Go-to Nutcracker fuel: "A banana with almond butter. I tend to eat smaller, more frequent snacks to keep my energy up and to avoid feeling too full during a performance."
Her self-care musts: "Especially on back-to-back two-show days, the ice bucket becomes my new best friend. On days off, I will either schedule a massage or create my own spa hour at home with an Epsom salt bath and aromatherapy candles."
Ballet West's backstage ritual: "In our corps women's dressing room, we hang a long strand of little plastic monkeys, each representing a Nutcracker show. After every performance we remove the bottom monkey and loudly 'Ooh-Ooh-Eee-Eee' like monkeys. We may be delirious but it keeps things fun."
Jaimi Cullen of Tulsa Ballet
Cullen in Tulsa Ballet's Party Scene. Photo courtesy Tulsa Ballet.
Years dancing Nutcracker at Tulsa Ballet: 8
How her approach has changed: "When I was first starting out in the company, I used to really 'punch' every step. I would put all of my energy into everything and tire out really fast. I've learned to manage my energy, how to use less force but still be dancing full-out."
Extra Nutcracker fuel: "I sometimes put Nuun electrolyte tablets in my water to drink throughout the show."
Self-care musts: "I roll out my muscles as often as I can and I make sure to see the physical therapist or massage therapist in between shows if I'm having any specific tightness or pain."
Dawn Atkins of Boston Ballet
Atkins, here in Snow Scene, keeps her energy up with pumpkin seeds and trail mixes in her dressing room. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Years dancing Nutcracker with Boston Ballet: 8
Favorite backstage treats: "Peanut butter pretzel nuggets! We always have a big jar of them in the dressing room."
Self-care musts: "I try to make sure I'm letting myself rest between shows even if it's just 15 minutes that I listen to music and just let myself nap a little bit. I also love using NormaTec boots."
How she keeps performances fresh: "I actually really like the feeling of being so familiar with a role that you can find new things to work on each time."
Chelsea Marie Renner of Ballet Austin
Renner getting ready backstage for the Snow Scene. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy Ballet Austin.
Years dancing Nutcracker at Ballet Austin: 14
How her approach has changed: "When I came to Ballet Austin as a trainee at 18, it was about proving myself. Over the years, your body gets to know the choreography so well that you just get to go out onstage and dance."
Favorite backstage treats: "I always like to bake a tray of holiday cookies to share with everyone. You never know when you might need that little chocolate boost come show #10, or sooner!"
Self-care rituals: "We make ice buckets and warm water buckets for contrast baths in the dressing room. I also like to take a hot shower, followed by stretching and rolling out after each show. On our off days, I spend time with my husband and my son to have a day away from ballet, so I can come back the next day fresh and ready to perform."
Best Nutcracker memory: "Last year, I got to perform the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time since high school: My first year in The Nutcracker as a kid I was a mouse, and my last year before moving to Austin from Montana, I was the Sugar Plum Fairy; then in my first season at Ballet Austin I was a rat, and last year I got cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
"Every year The Nutcracker rolls around, all of those memories come flooding back, including the year I watched from the audience while pregnant with my son. Now I get to share my love of The Nutcracker with him every year."
- Your Body: Surviving Nutcracker Season - Dance Magazine ›
- Steal These Nutcracker Survival Strategies - Dance Magazine ›
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.