Surviving Nutcracker

November 15, 2010

Imagine this: I’m at a beautiful July wedding, and at the moment the furthest thing from my mind is work—that is, until in the buffet line I run into an acquaintance who introduces me to his friend Kim.

And as Kim and I shake hands he continues: “Kim this is Jessika. She’s a professional ballerina with the Seattle Ballet…”

Quickly I interject: “It’s actually Pacific Northwest Ballet…”

But before I can say anymore, her eyebrows rise with astonishment as she says, “Wow! So were you like in The Nutcracker?”

The magic words are uttered and another friend standing behind us interrupts our conversation with: “Oh, Jessika! I think I want to take my nieces to see Nutcracker again this year. Do you know which shows you’ll be in, because we want to buy tickets for the one you’re in.”

I don’t even know which question to answer first. Was I in Nutcracker? As a member of the corps de ballet, it’s laughable to even think that I’d have the option of not being in it. And wait, what month is this? I don’t begin Nutcracker rehearsals till mid-November. It’s July.

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation. For most people Nutcracker is all they know about ballet. Balanchine? Forsythe? Who? But mention Nutcracker and their eyes light up. For them The Nutcracker is ballet. For me, as a professional corps de ballet dancer, it’s an inevitable and inescapable part of life. Even in July.

And reminders of this only intensify as October turns into November. Suddenly storefronts are strewn with snowflakes, tinsel, and twinkle lights. I’ll be driving in my car and the “all Christmas all the time” radio station will play the ever-popular Sugar Plum Fairy variation tune. I’ll turn the TV on to relax, only to hear the whirling-dervish music (PNB’s version of the Russian divertissement), blaring in some blowout department store ad. But the all-time worst is when, between shows, I’ll be aimlessly wandering the aisles of the grocery store, hungry and exhausted, and all of a sudden the cascading of the harp plays over the sound system, signaling the beginning of the “Waltz of the Flowers.” And I’m not hungry anymore—just sick at the thought that I have to dance that part yet again in a few hours.

Beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and generally ending just a couple days shy of New Year’s Eve, PNB gives somewhere between 35 and 40 performances. And with 11 different parts, I’m lucky if I get a couple of those shows off. My mantra during the month of December sounds something like “Don’t stop. Just go. Don’t think. Just do.” But in this incessant whirlwind of Nutcracker, more things than nuts are cracking. Let’s just say my mind, body, and general sanity are hard-pressed on every side.

One particular day stands out in my memory, but honestly it could represent any day in this marathon that is Nutcracker. Running toward the quick-change area as I rip off the doughnut of fake curls that surrounds my bun for the Frau Stahlbaum role in the party scene, the only thing occupying my mind is the fact that I can’t remember which Snowflake part I’m dancing. Snowflake No. 1 or Snowflake No. 11? As the dresser hooks up my baby blue tutu, I try and picture the sign-in sheet for that show. Which number did I cross off? Think, Jessika, think! Nope. Nothing. Pinning in my blue scrunchy headpiece, I feel like I’m playing hide-and-seek, and I’m the one seeking someone who dances one of my two parts. Finally I find my answer as Snowflake No. 11 sits at the rosin box putting on her pointe shoes. With a sigh of relief I quickly warm up my cold feet and stiff ankles as I mentally go through No. 1’s steps and counts using my hands to do the dancing—I’ve got to save my legs, which are already sore and tired from the shows earlier this week.

Later that day, after completing another two acts of dancing, I stand in front of the call board by the backstage doors, staring blankly at the casting sheet that looks like someone’s little kid went to town on it with a rainbow of neon highlighters. Suddenly the giant bag of ice I’m bringing home for an ankle ice-bath starts dribbling, waking me from my stupor. And I realize I’ve been standing for a good five minutes trying to figure out if any of the changes (unfortunately due to illness and injury) affect me. Jessika, it’s time to go home.

So how do I persevere? How do I survive Nutcracker without cracking? How do I make sure I’m not one of those highlights on the casting sheet? And more than that, how do I keep the magic alive?

Well, I may be the wrong person to ask, because in truth I have a secret confession to make: I actually love Nutcracker. A part of me looks forward to it every year.

You see, PNB’s Nutcracker holds a special place in my heart. It was the first ballet I ever saw. Now, our Nutcracker is not your typical Nutcracker. When Kent Stowell (PNB’s founding artistic director) created it in 1983, he collaborated with the world-renowned Maurice Sendak—author and illustrator of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. From the sets to the costumes to even the exotically patterned marley floor, no detail was left untouched by Sendak’s genius. The result: a children’s storybook come to life onstage. And Stowell’s choreography perfectly matches the beautiful Tchaikovsky score, conveying with energy and intrigue the original story by E. T. A. Hoffmann.

As a little girl I remember sitting there in the audience watching, all starry-eyed, the breathtakingly beautiful snow scene, serenely lit by soft moonlight. And as the snow began to fall and the dancers dressed in their baby blue tutus swirled, swooshed, leaped, and lunged, a seed was planted deep within my heart. I longed for the day when I would don that tutu, when I would be a Snowflake. And this desire only increased when at the age of 11, I got my first taste of the stage as the tallest member of the toy soldier infantry. Nutcracker was not only the first ballet I ever saw, but also the first ballet I ever danced. I remember standing in line waiting for our cue to go on, clad in my little military costume, my face ghostly white with fright and cheeks rosy red with face paint. But my anxiety quickly lifted as a puff of blue tulle passed by. And I must have looked like the strangest soldier going to war with an enormous smile plastered on my face. But I’d seen my dream up close. How could I not smile?

Fast-forward 14 years and now I’m the one in the baby blue tutu. My dream has come true. And as I stand at the barre warming up with those little tin soldiers all lined up next to me, eyes wide and jaws dropped, my heart can’t help but hiccup. Suddenly all my aches and pains seem to die down. I remember where I came from, and I am thankful; I am inspired. My mind turns to all the little girls out there in the audience who might be seeing this for the first time; for whom this very show might plant the seed of dance in their hearts. And I can be a part of that.

These thoughts and memories are what keep me from cracking. Sure the long run of Nutcracker can be monotonous, strenuous, and draining. But each show is a gift, not just for others but for me as well. I’m blessed to be on the stage and I love to dance and perform. Nutcracker provides me with ample opportunities to share these loves. But the reality is I won’t be a dancer forever. So I try to enjoy each and every moment I’m out there.

So how do I survive Nutcracker? I remember the past, I enjoy the now, and I dance in the snow.