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.
We all know dance careers are temporary. But this season, it feels like we're saying goodbye to more stars than usual.
Many have turned to social media to share their last curtain calls, thoughts on what it feels like to say farewell to performing, and insights into the ways that dancing has made them who they are. After years of dedicating your life to the studio and stage, the decision to stop dancing is always an emotional one. Each dancer handles it in their own way—whether that means cheekily admitting to having an existential crisis, or simply leaving with no regrets about what you did for love.
We will miss these dancers' performances, but can't wait to see what awaits each in their next chapters.
Choreographic incubator Broadway Dance Lab has recently been rechristened Dance Lab New York. "I found the nomenclature of 'Broadway' was actually a type of glass ceiling to the organization," says choreographer Josh Prince, who founded the nonprofit in 2012.