Nutcracker secrets revealed

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Nadia Zuaiter ’17

For many Convent of the Sacred Heart students, celebrating the holiday season is incomplete without the magical performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet, The Nutcracker. While many students watch from the audience, few have the rare opportunity to experience the enchantment both on stage and behind the scenes.
The Christmas ballet originally debuted with director Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s and choreographer Marius Petipa’s adaption of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the King of Mice. Although its premiere in its original form was in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, the ballet did not arrive in America until nearly 50 years later, according to nutcrackerballet.net.
However, the performance that most audiences recognize today is attributed to choreographer and dancer Mr. George Balanchine, who redefined The Nutcracker as a holiday tradition.

Set to Mr. Tchaikovsky’s well-known musical compositions, the ballet follows Clara, a young German girl, who has a vivid dream of a Nutcracker prince and his battle against the King Rat. When Clara joins his fantasy world, she and the Nutcracker journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. Once they arrive, Clara and the Nutcracker receive a visit from the Sugar Plum Fairy, who brings her townspeople to entertain Clara and her prince, according to houstonballet.org. 

While performances vary around the world, detailed costumes, elegant dance numbers and special effects such as a growing tree, moving beds and Mother Ginger’s colossal dress are characteristic of each production. Mother Ginger’s gown must hide eight small child dancers, who portray the ginger children or Polichinelles, who emerge from underneath it. Weighing 85 pounds and stretching 9 feet wide, the dress requires the dancer to wear metal stilts for support.

However, most audiences do not know how much work goes into creating the visually appealing experience.

Nadia Zuaiter '17
Nadia Zuaiter ’17

Senior Sarah Banker has been participating in the Allegra Dance’s production of The Nutcracker for three years. Sarah has portrayed a Spanish dancer and is currently the lead flower in “The Waltz of Flowers.”
“It is very cool to be able to experience the show from behind the scenes,” Sarah said. “I remember watching the show as a little girl and never noticing the effects used to create the show, now when I am rehearsing it is really interesting to see how they create the effects to help set the scene.”
A popular part of the ballet is the “Snow Scene,” during which dancers pivot around the stage under flurries of snow. Some productions, such as Allegra’s, use shredded plastic bags to create snowflakes. While the ballerinas perform their dance, the snowflakes are released from the ceiling to mimic falling snow.
Like Sarah, sophomore Clare Hammonds dances Nutcracker productions. She has participated in the Westchester Ballet Company’s performance for the past eight years.
“The year before I began participating in the production I remember sitting in the audience watching the snow scene and I thought it was amazing,” Clare said.
Another well-known effect that both Sarah and Clare recognize is the ornate Christmas tree, which transforms from life-sized to looming and astonishes both audience members and dancers alike. To seamlessly increase the size of the evergreen, production crews often add extra fabric behind the existing tree. As the Nutcracker begins to grow and mice attack Clara, a member of the staff pulls the tree’s fabric to make it expand.
“It is amazing to see behind the scenes all the work everyone does to create the effects,” Sarah said.
Ms. Liliana Dimitri, mother of junior Alex Dimitri, danced in the New York City Ballet (NYCB) production of The Nutcracker from 1976 to 1978 at Lincoln Center. During her tenure in the company, Ms. Dimitri portrayed the Sentry and two different soldier roles. While participating in the ballet, Ms. Dimitri observed many special effects that brought The Nutcracker to life.  She also revealed the strategies the NYCB uses to run their successful production every year.
“To make the sled fly, it is raised by ropes, which are strategically hidden in a movable metal stand where the Sugar Plum Fairy performs her primary dance,” Ms. Dimitri said.
The soaring sled that Clara and the Nutcracker ride in at the end of the ballet often mesmerizes audiences. With support from the hidden ropes, Clara and her prince truly look like they are flying.
Another magical effect is the NYCB’s growing tree, which is much larger compared to a smaller production’s. To adjust to its size, NYCB uses a different method to simulate a growing Christmas tree.
“Watching the 1 ton, 12′ x 46′ tree coming up from the floor and seeing the floor open to accommodate the growing width of it was the largest surprise and very exciting and magical to observe,” Ms. Dimitri said.
Among the special effects and enchantment that The Nutcracker dancers bring to the stage, Ms. Dimitri believes that the most spellbinding moments were watching her audience’s reactions and her collaboration with cast members.
“The most magical parts were looking out at the audience while the tree grew which, once compete, was just before one of my parts,” Ms. Dimitri said. “It was equally magical and an honor to dance with professionals like Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Baryshnikov and to be part of a live production still choreographed by George Balanchine, who attended all of the dress rehearsals.”
– Nadia Zuaiter, Staff Writer