Plum Roles: Nutcrackers Guesting

July 31, 2007

The Nutcracker
offers many Americans their first glimpse of ballet, so when the dancers—particularly the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier—are top-notch, the event can be life-changing. As representatives of the professional ballet world, guest artists also inspire younger dancers to pursue their dreams.
And guesting gives the artists their own perks and pleasures. “For a town that’s not a ballet town, Honolulu gets awesome dancers. It’s not hard to convince us to come here,” says Amanda Schull. Last year, she and Joan Boada, both of San Francisco Ballet, appeared in Ballet Hawaii’s
. “The dancers and students are the sweetest. Working with kids can be so wonderful. They get excited to learn from you.”
Jenifer Ringer, a principal with New York City Ballet, remembers it from the other side. “I started taking ballet at a very small school in Summerville, South Carolina from Terry Shields,” she says. “One of her students who had become a professional dancer came back to take [class] with her. I was so excited to see someone who actually danced for a living. In my town that was unheard of. He seemed like a superhero to me, but he was so nice to all of us. Talking to him put the seed of a dream into my own heart.”
As a guest artist herself, Ringer has performed with Northeast Ballet in Schenectady, New York; Chamber Ballet in Williamsburg, Virginia; and Dances Patrelle in New York City. “When I visit a school to dance
, I feel like I am an ambassador. I love to dance and want to help nurture that love in the young dancers of today.” This winter Ringer will perform with the Chamberlain Ballet in Richardson, Texas.
Raymond Van Mason, who performed
The Nutcracker
last year with Shenandoah Civic Dance Company in Virginia and DanceWest Ballet in Illinois, says that teaching the next generation is a large part of his job as the Cavalier. “I find myself performing with younger girls who haven’t experienced much partnering. I like seeing them discover something new.” Van Mason, who has his own company called Imagine Ballet Theatre as well as an affiliated school, says, “By guesting I make contacts for teaching and choreography.”
His most memorable trip as a guest artist came in 1997 when his flight from Salt Lake City was canceled due to bad weather. He and his partner from Ballet West, Pamela Robinson, were rushing from a rehearsal and trying to catch a flight to Mesa, Arizona, to perform
The Nutcracker
with Ballet Etudes. “We played the Sugar Plum card, telling the Delta agents that we needed to perform that evening,” he says, “and they did everything they could to get us there.” Passengers gave up their seats when they heard the Sugar Plum and Cavalier were onboard, and they arrived at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport with the show beginning in less than an hour. “A stranger on the flight had a car waiting at the airport, and whisked us to the theater.” Meanwhile Sharon Meko, director of Ballet Etudes, was “pulling her hair out.” By the time the dancers arrived, the party scene had begun. Van Mason and Robinson warmed up, put on the make-up, and performed. “No one in the audience ever knew. This shows the magic of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” says Van Mason.

is the cash cow of every [ballet] company in America,” says Van Mason, “so it’s nice that dancers can have a little extra income from guesting.” Dancers interviewed for this article made between $500 and $2,000 per show plus transportation and hotel costs. Most of Van Mason’s guesting jobs are organized by his agent, New York-based Mark Kappel.
Kappel says that guesting takes a certain kind of dancer who can “deal with the unexpected.” In smaller towns, theaters may not have sprung floors or the manpower to cater to dancers’ requests. Kappel asks artistic directors about their needs, and then matches them with the appropriate guest artist, sometimes showing the guest a video of the production well in advance.
One of his guest artists is Dominic Walsh, a principal with Houston Ballet before he established Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Kappel schedules his guesting work during the
season, which frees Walsh to focus on his choreography the rest of the year. Since 1996 he’s done a production in Kansas with Friends University/Wichita Ballet Theatre. This winter, Walsh can also be seen with Houston Ballet principal Sara Webb in the Greater York Youth Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker in Pennsylvania. “In order to be a guest artist you need to be durable and flexible,” he says. “You might come into a city and not have the facilities you are accustomed to. You have to know how to take care of yourself and know your body.”
Like Walsh, Olivier Wecxsteen was a principal dancer before he became a guest artist. Born in France, Wecxsteen performed with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Boston Ballet, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and has danced in
The Nutcracker
as a guest artist for about 10 years. “The grand pas looks easy and calm,” he says, “but the adagio is quite long and hard.” Wecxsteen prefers to bring his own Sugar Plum Fairy “because everything is simpler and faster and I know that the chemistry will be there.”
In Europe
The Nutcracker
is familiar, but it’s not a holiday tradition, so Wecxsteen appreciates being a part of a North American custom. “Here, whether it’s a big company or a school, it’s always a pleasure for me. Being surrounded by kids who dream of becoming a dancer, it is my responsibility not only to be good technically but also the whole presentation makes a difference: style, makeup, costume. The role of the Cavalier is about style and elegance.” This December Wecxsteen, who also works with Kappel, will dance in three Nutcrackers: Brighton City Ballet’s production in Pinckney, Michigan; Western Arkansas Ballet’s production in Fort Smith, Arkansas; and Charleston Ballet in West Virginia.
For some guest artists,
The Nutcracker
provides a kind of homecoming. American Ballet Theatre’s Sarah Smith performed her first Nutcracker at age 7 with Florida’s Boca Ballet Theatre. When Smith graduated from high school and continued her training at Indiana University, Jane Tyree, who co-directs Boca Ballet, asked her to return to Florida in 2003 to perform Sugar Plum in their Nutcracker.
“I was totally blown out of the water!” Smith recalls. “I remember being so awestruck watching the professional dancers when I was little.” She did the performances and she thinks that’s what helped her get into ABT. “I’d rehearse on weekends and then go back to school. I was working overtime. When ABT’s Julie Kent and Guillaume Graffin came to coach us, they saw how hard I was working and they suggested that I audition for the company.” Smith was accepted into ABT in January 2004 and returned to do Boca’s
that year. “The coolest part about it is going home to guest. Everybody remembers when you were a flower in The Nutcracker. They get excited by the fact that they saw something special in you and it came true.”
Guesting opportunities can conflict with dancers’ regular contracts, but most companies provide pockets of time that enable these appearances to work. For dancers who haven’t overdosed on the sentimental strains of Tchaikovsky’s score, performances as guest artists offer opportunities to give back to the ballet community—not only expanding their personal repertories, but also instilling the magic of dance in those who see them or perform with them.

Kate Mattingy teaches at Florida Atlantic University and writes about dance for
The Sun-Sentinel and New Times.