nutcracker on stage
In early September, while most area kids are sweating through the end of summer and adjusting to a new school year, 80 hopeful dancers tentatively tip toed into the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.
Sugar Plum Fairy, that is.
The Miami City Ballet, which has brought the beloved holiday tradition of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker Ballet for the past 20 years to Naples, was holding auditions for the children’s cast who will perform along side the world renowned dance company and the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra the production. Miami City Ballet School faculty member Roberto Rodriguez was present along with parent/children coordinator Mary Hines and local rehearsal director Carolyn Chesney. The children would be awarded the parts of the children in the opening party scene, the second act’s colorful cast of angels, polichenelles, hoops, Chinese tea dancers and the coveted role of Marie.
The dancers were greeted at the registration table with a yard stick by parent volunteer and veteran “Nut Mom” Nina Birtolo, who determined which roles the children were qualified to audition for height-wise. Dancers under 4’11” could hope for the roles of the children, angels and polichinelles; the taller and older dancers (usually who had done their time in the more petite roles) were told to return at a later time to audition for the hoops and Chinese tea dancers.
For the dancers, height can influence the outcome of the audition as much as their talent. The Miami City Ballet has been using the same costume inventory for nearly 20 years and the costumes cannot be altered for size. The roles in the opening party scene go to shorter dancers so they can play the children of the company members. Other group roles need dancers whose heights are similar to each other so that the look onstage is clean and uniform.
After learning routines and much rearrangement into different groups, 69 girls and one boy were awarded roles in this season’s production.
Mary Hines, whose daughter performed in the production for seven years and has been the local parent/children coordinator for the past four years, sets the stage for the extreme discipline and commitment required of the children. In the audition application children are advised that, if awarded a role, they will be expected to attend the next seven days of intensive rehearsals in the studio space donated by Naples Dance Conservatory and that roles still may be rearranged. Tardiness, absence and poor behavior are all grounds for being dismissed from the production. Once rehearsal begins with the Miami cast the expectations are taken to the next level. The children are asked not to interact with the company dancers in any way other than their role calls for. These standards are all necessary to ensure the smooth integration of the children’s cast with the dance company
But don’t think for a moment that the dancers are not having fun. “It is a tremendous opportunity to perform with an internationally known ballet company and to dance on the stage at the Philharmonic,” Hines says. “There is no room for playing around in the wings of the stage or in our production space and yet they have so much fun being with their friends and working hard to produce a quality show for the audience. They benefit from watching the professional dancers prepare, warm up and perform on stage from backstage. They witness their dedication and behavior. It’s an overall awesome experience.”
The children rise to the challenge and it appears their commitment does not go unnoticed.
Miami City Ballet faculty member Roberto Rodriguez praised the local children for their hard work at the audition and told the parents that they could be assured that the local dance studios were doing a fantastic job preparing their dance students. “Miami City Ballet loves the Naples children,” Hines agreed. “We are always highly complimented on their dance technique and the overall attitude and behavior of our dancers.”
Backstage Dance Academy Director Wendy Wagner offers a Nutcracker workshop the day before auditions to give students a chance to learn some of the choreography that they may have to perform at the audition.
“Participating in the Miami City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker gives young dancers the unique opportunity to perform with a respected professional ballet company,” Wagner comments. “Dancing and performing alongside this graceful and powerful cast not only inspires young dancers, but gives them an inside look into the world of professional dance. Between Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score and Balanchine’s stylized choreography, it’s enough to make anyone fall in love with The Nutcracker. Add to that, the combination of charming costumes, stage lights, and performing to the powerful music of live Philharmonic orchestra and it’s a young dancer’s dream come true. It is an experience that can turn enthusiasm for dance into love and passion that will last a lifetime.”
Local rehearsal director Carolyn Chesney conducts three rehearsals per week teaching the dancers the choreography, character and the story of The Nutcracker. The first time the local cast meets the professional dancers is at dress rehearsal the day before the show opens. “The children are well prepared for their role by Carolyn Chesney,” says Hines. “They have always performed very well and adjusted to the stage and the integration of the adult dancers.”
Many of the Miami City Ballet dancers fondly remember the Nutcracker roles they played when they were young ballet students. Corps de Ballet dancer Rebecca King asks fellow dancers to recall the Nutcracker experience in her online video diary.
Corps de Ballet dancer Nicole Stalker remembers, “I started out as a party girl and then in 2001 I got to do Marie. Every little party girl wanted to be Marie. I got to sit on the stage for the whole second act and I just loved watching the company dancers dance.”
Ezra Hurwitz’s first Nutcracker audition was a disappointment and he didn’t get a role. When he was eight years old, his dancing career took flight as he took on roles as Fritz and later as the Prince. In recent productions the male Corps de Ballet dancer has taken on the role of Candy Cane which he admits is still a challenge.
“To me it is about the kids,” says Soloist Callie Manning. “I love being a part of the party scene and I love playing the mom and getting to interact with the kids because it’s so magical. I remember being (in the party scene) as a child so I know what they are feeling.”
“I try to remember that Nutcracker is a lot of people’s first time at the ballet, which is really special,” Stalker says. “It is really fun to see all the little girls dressed up in their Christmas dresses and so into the story of The Nutcracker.”
by Stacy Nicolau