‘Tis the season, where dancers everywhere lace up pointe shoes, pull up their tights, and worry about this step or that. Sarah Hill’s lively version of the holiday favorite recently at Highland Community College was no exception. She choreographed dazzling details of the ballet from curtain to curtain with amazing fervor. All the traditions of the 19th century creation were there. A charming little girl, Delaney Munda as Clara, dances in Victorian reality, then dreams of mice, soldiers, a tree that grows, snow that falls and, of course, the beloved nutcracker that comes to life.
There were dancers and more dancers, children and more children, and a full house of parents, grandparents, and all proud friends and family eager to present flowers to their young celebrities. There were the youngest little tykes proud of their steps, always with a leader who might boss her neighbor about doing it right. Other dancers entered and exited, presenting their technical progress. And, of course, there was remarkable soloist, Carly Hartman, to lead and inspire all. A stunning Hill would receive the most bouquets as an appreciation for climbing that near-impossible ‘Nutcracker’ mountain that would include choreography, endless details, and a minor miracle to haul off the above.
History tells us that no successful creation of anything happens overnight. Prime example would be the premier of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” in 1924. It was a jazzy newcomer to previously symphonic structure and criticized as, “…trite, feeble and conventional the tunes; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment.” In more recent history, The Beatles broke new ground to shock old ground, safe and sound in their old ways.
The advent of ‘Nutcracker’ is no exception to the nuts and bolts of change that comes with much resistance. The original concept was born with E.T.A. Hoffman who was purportedly an author of gothic and horror – a far cry from the dreamy fantasy of the ‘Nutcracker’ story that we know today. Hoffman’s creations were not always eerie, however, because he is also responsible for the original, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Two other of his stories turned into ballet “Coppelia.”
All this swirl of today and yesterday brings many of us dancers into our own unforgettable experiences of this standard ballet of the holidays. The mishaps and missteps of our own often times brought us to our knees, literally. There’s a saying that “everyone falls on stage.”
My six years of doing hard time, you might say, was performing in Chicago’s ‘Nutcracker,’ sponsored by Tribune Charities, at McCormick Place on the Lakefront. The simple math adds up to well over 100 performances, so I’ve danced around that block enough to know every note, every nuance and every step that made me nervous.
During this time in the early ‘70s, powers-that-be of McCormick Place were understandably jumpy about fire since the previous building had burned to ashes in 1967. It wouldn’t happen again, they resolved! The rebuild would thereby contain a recipe of more cement than it would take to bury an entire corps de ballet. That would include the stage designed more for tractor shows than pointe shoes. Embedded in the corps, we often found ourselves a kneeling backdrop until the next musical cue to travel to another position. I glanced across to a dancer friend to see tears of pain rolling from her false eyelashes. She would be one of many of us to endure surgical repair.
About fire, however, there is only so much cement to be poured into two acts. As the famous Act One tree grew and the dazzling Snow Scene evolved, a set piece hit a light to start a few flames. The fire curtain crashed down faster than the conductor’s tempos. We thirty-two snowflakes in our long flammable tutus were prevented from entering the stage! For a moment, I felt duty bound to dance, anyway, but then relieved at the chaos to follow.
Richard Ellis, who played Herr Drosselmeyer in those years, commented about the untimely fire, “Funny, I waved my wand and it worked!” He was also on record to comment that his wrinkles needed less stage makeup each year.
My First Act role was Frau Stahlbaum to dance all the bows and formalities contained in ruffles and white gloves. During one performance at each waltz and promenade I felt my hoop skirt underneath unravel itself until I was forced to hold it upright until a legal exit. The process of holding on, however, turned less Victorian and more Hoedown. The set might have been bales of hay rather than 19th century set pieces!
During that run of performances was also the first time I hear the word “lollygag.” It was uttered by the show’s choreographer Ruth Page toward a dancer who had extra music to fill before her exit to the wings. “Well, dah-ling,” said Miss Page, “you need to lollygag and make up more steps on your own.”
The year of the Hong Kong flu was one that swept the entire cast. In today’s terms, it went viral. Much scrambling of roles had to be mathematically reordered to accommodate each Second Act divertissement; if there were four bodies in a dance, then three would have to suffice. If normally three, then two would due. In turn, the director had deal with new spacing to avoid visual lopsidedness. No one else was available to replace an ill Mouse King, so he also had to fetch the enormous scary headpiece that sat on his desk pre-performance with his smirking disgust behind.
One year, a star of the show had apparently not read the details of her contract closely. When it was too late to change, she found herself doing both Waltz of the Flowers lead and the Grand Pas de Deux, both in Act Two. It would be a most taxing effort. During one rehearsal, she expressed her anger clearly with an F-bomb toward the director, her husband. He shrugged. Then the rehearsal pianist calmly walked toward director and said, “…is this the guest artist?”
That same year I learned that Waltz of the Flowers clocked up to seven minutes long. It was a marathon of stamina so that by the end I ran out of steam and did the last pirouette off pointe. I got away with it until the director stood glaring from the wings three feet away. That tortuous seven minutes to us was also carefully noted by handsome star of the Grand Pas de duex after Waltz. “In seven minutes,” he dreaded, “I’ll be in hell.”
‘Nutcracker’ is what it is, and was what it was. It’s here to stay.