Too Many Nutcrackers? Dancers Coping Strategies

July 31, 2007

Ah, the holidays. For so many
devotees, the two hours spent each Christmas with Clara and her candyland fantasies is an event to look forward to. Like Santa, it only comes one night a year. But for the dancers who can chart their Nutcracker evolution from high school auditoriums to 3,000-seat opera houses, the ballet represents not one magical journey each December but many, many trips, over and over again. This winter, a dancer may log anywhere from a dozen performances over a few weekends to 45 shows over a five-week period. How do these professionals deal with the familiarity some would say tedium–of a ballet that many have been performing annually their whole lives? Love for the art aside, when you’re faced with a giant mouse suit for the sixth day in a row, you start looking for creative ways to cope.


According to New York City Ballet soloist Daniel Ulbricht, the way to avoid
burnout is to think out of the box–to find ways to alleviate repetitive stress and lift flagging spirits without compromising the integrity of a performance. Ulbricht’s morale boosting techniques include sitting in the wings in his Chinese Tea costume during the “Waltz of the Flowers,” gesturing at the dancers onstage like some kind of crazy Nutcracker cheerleader. “I’ll do the YMCA song or something,” he says. “You don’t want to be a distraction, but c’mon, the girls are bourreeing for hours, it seems, and you want to make them smile.”


For Adam Sterr, a Milwaukee Ballet corps member with 11 years of
experience, the thought of yet another Party Scene often compels him to use his powers of imagination when his motivation begins to wane. “We’re always being told, ‘Think of who you are at the party,'” he says. Last year, Sterr created a unique persona for his role as one of the guests, complete with a Donald Trump-style comb-over and a slouchy hips-forward posture that he was able to maintain during the scene’s formal dances. Calling himself a “Victorian used stagecoach salesman,” he had even the ballet mistress laughing in the wings. Although he notes that his characters (who also include a butler with a hair-sniffing fetish) cannot be so over-the-top that they detract from the overall story, this year’s identity was already underway last summer.


At New York Theatre Ballet, a small chamber company that performs three one-hour shows a day over several weekends, the snowflakes–who number four girls in total–gather together in the green room for a ritualistic “releve circle.” Elena Zahlmann, the production’s most recent Clara, describes it as “standing in a circle in the snow costume doing releves in first position.” With such a small cast, the dancers are basically onstage the whole time, and need, as Zahlmann deadpans, “to get snowflaked-up.”


Houston Ballet soloist Kelly Myernick admits to the occasional booty dance in the wings before “Waltz of the Flowers” to get herself going. As Myernick tells it, sometimes you have to find ways to take your mind off your pain–“that tendonitis that all the girls have in the same ankle from running in a ‘Snow’ circle for 40 shows in a row.” She swears, however, that the thing that gets her through
The Nutcracker
every year is her beloved Mariah Carey Christmas album. “This year, I have to buy myself a new copy because I’ve completely worn out ‘O Holy Night,'” she says. Although the songs–and her high decibel singing–start in her car on the way to the theatre, they’re mostly banned to her iPod once she gets to her dressing room. Not to be deterred, Myernick has bigger plans for her favorite holiday recording: “I fantasize about playing it for the whole cast over the P.A. system,” she muses.


Ulbricht and his male colleagues at NYCB rely on a couple of Xbox game consoles for distraction. Hooked up to the dressing room television monitors with their sound effects disabled, “Halo 2” and “Top Spin” run rampant while Tchaikovsky’s music plays in the background, allowing the men to track the performance in progress so they know when to start getting ready.


At The Sacramento Ballet, principal Kirsten Bloom tells of a different sort of backstage diversion among the dancers–a certain boredom-fighting tradition of one-upmanship they goodnaturedly refer to as “dressing room wars.” Bloom explains: “While the women are doing ‘Snow,’ the men will do crazy things to their dressing rooms, and then the women wily get the men back while they’re off having dinner or after a show.” One incident had Bloom lining the walls and ceiling of another dressing room with Hefty garbage bags; the retaliation was 50 car air fresheners strung all over her own room. The “wars” start small and get bigger as
The Nutcracker
continues. Bloom attributes it to the stress of too many 10 a.m. school shows (and the accompanying 8:30 a.m. warm-up).


Given the unusual prop-based nature of certain
sections, antics sometimes give way to more focused motivating procedures. Bloom’s Sacramento Ballet colleague Hamilton Nieh often finds himself trying to channel his panic when he’s standing in the wings in a huge Nutcracker head. In a climactic moment in SB’s first act battle scene, the Nutcracker doll must be replaced by its life-sized counterpart, as portrayed by Nieh–a transformation that requires some tricky timing and costume maneuvering. “It’s very stressful,” Nieh says, “because if I mess it up, the magic is spoiled for the audience.” Waiting offstage listening to the music leading up to that difficult section, Nieh continues, “makes me think of the movie Honeymoon in Vegas with Nicolas Cage when he jumps out of a plane with a parachute. He keeps repeating ‘Yellow then red, yellow then red,’ trying to remind himself of the correct procedure. That’s me before I go on: ‘Here it comes here it comes here it comes oh my god oh my god!’ ” Sometimes his mantra works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it does help to get him psyched up.


Former San Francisco Ballet principal Julia Adam also remembers needing to get motivated year after year for The Nutcracker’s special challenges, in her case, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Normally a feisty, gregarious personality, Adam would mentally cocoon into herself to combat her fear of the dreaded role. “I would turn into Gandhi during a fast,” she remembers. “I would get very zen, very, quiet. But then Sugar Plum would start, and my feet would go numb.” It didn’t help, she said, that her partner for many years would combat his own dread by “turning into Mary Lou Retton before we went on–he’d want to do backflips across the stage instead of partner me.” No doubt, every dancer has his or her way of dealing with
The Nutcracker
, especially since many of them have been performing it for so long. Ulbricht notes, “You have to find what works best for you. Detachment, even for 5 or 10 minutes, equals survival. It doesn’t mean you don’t love dance as much as somebody else; it means you’ve found a balance.” And if finding a balance means a funky dance in the wings, a specialized mantra, or a few rounds with an Xbox before the show, these dancers, like it or not, will be around for many more Nutcrackers to come.



Kim Okamura, a former dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles