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Nutcracker's Delectable Divertissements
Step aside, Clara and Sugar Plum Fairy. Though little girls everywhere dream of dancing those roles, hundreds of dancers are having a blast and jacking up crowds in The Nutcracker's second-act delights: the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Mirlitons (French) divertissements. Sometimes danced by principals, these nuggets of nationalistic dancing-with as many variations as there are candles on the Stahlbaums' Christmas tree-more often give spotlight time to soloists or corps dancers. Five dancers from five companies share their experiences in making these spicy roles their own.
Many productions maintain the traditional Land of the Sweets theme, designating Spanish as chocolate, Arabian as coffee, Chinese as tea, Russian as candy canes, and Mirlitons as flute-shaped confections. Others get more creative. Choreographers seem to take the most license with the snippet of music that Tchaikovsky dubbed "Mirlitons." Boston Ballet makes it a pastoral scene, complete with shepherdesses and lambs; at San Francisco Ballet, three French dance-hall girls swirl ribbons while flashing lots of leg; a trio in 18th-century garb dances to the flutes at Houston Ballet. And at Pacific Northwest Ballet, a Harlequin-like male character and two female sidekicks jump straight from commedia dell'arte.
PNB corps de ballet member Lesley Rausch, who has danced the role (called "Commedia" instead of "Mirlitons") in former artistic director Kent Stowell's Nutcracker for five years, loves its theatricality. "There's a lot of interaction between the three [dancers]; the guy dances with one, then the other, and it creates tension," she says. "It's puffy, with a lot of petite allegro and pointe work, and very musical.
"Doing Nut you get so bored and tired," continues Rausch, "but every time I do Commedia it's fun and upbeat and there's good energy between the dancers. It's more theatrical, so you can make something out of it."
At Houston Ballet, first soloist Ian Casady performed the Chinese Dance for six years, starting with his first season with the company in 1998. As luck would have it, he was always paired with his boyhood friend, former HB soloist Lucas Priolo, in the dance for two men, one with a sword and one with a staff. "I did it with Lucas every time, so it got to the point where it ran like a machine. It's character [dancing] with acrobatic stuff thrown in. I was the sword guy," says Casady. The dancers don't need special training to work with the weapons since they're not used for fencing, but good teamwork is essential for the cartwheels and butterfly kicks they perform over each other's weapon. Still, hazard pay might be in order; despite the sword's blunt edge, Casady managed to draw blood in rehearsal. "I cut my head on the sword one time-I just barely tapped my head with it, and I didn't feel anything. But when I looked in the mirror there was blood running down my face-that freaked me out!"
Although Casady, who now dances the Prince, has also done Mirlitons, Arabian, and Spanish, he says that Chinese is his favorite. "It's tricky, and the music's fun, and it's kind of a silly dance. The audiences are always really into it. I loved doing it."
At San Francisco Ballet, the role of lead Russian is practically synonymous with principal dancer Guennadi Nedviguine-who is, serendipitously, Russian. He's danced the role since he joined the company in 1997, nearly always on opening night, earning whoops and cheers with his high-flying split jumps. How many he squeezes in depends on his mood. "Sometimes I do one big, then one small, one big, then one small, then four. Sometimes I do them with a grand plie, and then I do less," he says. (He trades in his Cossack-style duds for princely attire when he dances the grand pas de deux.)
Although artistic director Helgi Tomasson launched an elegant new production in 2004, he retained Anatole Vilzak's 1986 choreography for the Russian trepak. "I think it was a good move," says Nedviguine. "The character has been written very bravura." With its folk-dance-based steps and dazzling jumps, it has always been a crowd-pleaser. But now the three men make a surprise entrance, bursting out of Faberge-like eggs. "You have this little hole to look through for the conductor's cue, but you don't have much space to start jumping and break the paper," Nedviguine says. "You're pretty tense when you're in there, like a tiger waiting to jump. It works well with the choreography-you explode onto the stage."
Cheering crowds weren't the reason why New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan coveted the role of Arabian. She's danced it only twice, but the memory of her performance is indelible-it's on film, in the 1993 movie version of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. And the role is equally well preserved in the heart of this dancer. "I wanted to do it my whole life, so it was a dream come true. My mother had gotten me tickets for Christmas when I was 6 or 7, and that was the only thing I remembered," says Whelan. "I liked it because it had such a different tempo-smoky and sexy, with snaky music."
So when NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins offered her the role, Whelan was thrilled. "I like the earthiness of it, that it's almost a modern dance," she says. "The style is more what I'm comfortable with-flexed feet and hands, head down, and darker. I could always relate to that. It's very physical and earthy and exotic.
"I was learning it with ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy," continues Whelan, "and I remember doing one of the steps with flexed feet differently, and she really liked it. As a young principal dancer, it was important to me that she said the way I did it was valid."
As if dancing Arabian weren't enough of a fantasy come to life, Whelan's memory of the role is inextricably tied to romance: It was while wearing that costume that she met the man who would become her husband, photographer David Michalek. "I remember when the door opened and we saw each other," she says. "I put my little dress on and I tried to seduce him." With obvious success-they've been together for 13 years.
Unlike Whelan, Kate Crews, a demi-soloist with Ballet West, has made something of a career out of her customary Nutcracker role. After dancing Spanish for four years at Kansas City Ballet, Crews was cast in it again in her first year with Ballet West, as the trio's lead in Willam Christensen's Nutcracker. Seven years later she's still at it. "My favorite part is the entrance," she says. "The two side girls come on and then the lead comes on with this huge jete, and it gets the audience's attention. It's quick but powerful. You get to play with the audience, give it a little extra flair."
Crews, who also dances the longer, adagio Arabian, says, "Spanish is exciting. It's short; you make your statement and it's done. And now that it's such a part of my body and experience, I couldn't imagine doing Nutcracker without it."
Cheryl Ossola is a San Francisco-based writer and editor and a contributing editor for Dance Magazine.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.