Dancers have a love-hate relationship with Nutcracker. For many, it was the first ballet they saw; for even more, it was the first they ever performed. But, despite the nostalgia, December’s relentless marathon of shows takes a toll. If Nutcracker music is starting to make you a little loopy, you’re not alone!
Soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet
First roles: Angel and Soldier in The Nutcracker movie with Macaulay Culkin
Favorite role: Lead Marzipan and Sugar Plum
Performances per season: About 30
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Darci Kistler
How do you stay sane during Nutcracker season? I sew. It takes my mind off the day. And my gym is across the street from our theater, so in between shows—some Saturdays we have three in a day—I’ll go to the hot tub.
How do you keep up your stamina? I swim laps about three times a week. It loosens up my joints. I always feel much more open and taller afterwards.
What goes through your mind when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Honestly? Anxiety.
Favorite holiday traditions? Icing my feet! And I love to escape to New York City, because that’s where I grew up.
Biggest Nutcracker nightmare? In my first year doing Sugar Plum, my shoe came off near the end of my variation! I had to do the whole greeting scene with it practically off my foot. I thought nothing could go wrong after that—but the next day, my partner was horribly sick, and in the pas when we did the no-handed fish, he didn’t feel me start to slide down. My belly was basically lying on the floor!
Principal at Boston Ballet
First role: Party kid
Favorite roles: Dew Drop and Snow Queen
Performances per season: 40–45
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Larissa Ponomarenko
How do you stay sane? Halfway through the run, I’ll usually be like, “Okay, let’s go Christmas shopping!” I love trying to get the best presents, something the person would never guess—I kind of go crazy, researching online. And I’ll shop for a New Year’s dress, or decorate my dressing room with lights.
Do you exchange gifts with castmates? For “merde” gifts, we all go to this Chinese store down the street and try to find the most random stuff—like Sharpies. One time, someone gave me a baby blanket, which I still use as a mat to stretch on!
What do you do on Christmas? My brother Jeffrey is also in the company, so our parents usually come up here. My mom makes dinner, and we’ll invite over other dancers whose families aren’t nearby. Last year, we had two days off, so we actually got to go home to Philadelphia for the first time in seven years.
Any blooper stories? Not personally, but we have a story that’s epic at Boston Ballet: We were doing an afternoon show for children, and James Whiteside and Kathleen Breen Combes were dancing Arabian for the first time. All of the sudden, a girl from the audience crawls up on stage and starts running around screaming! They just keep dancing, and it becomes a pas de trois. The girl runs backstage and Craig, our stage manager, tries to catch her, but she’s scared—he’s a big guy. Then Drosselmeyer runs after her, and she’s screaming and running back and forth onstage. She starts to go toward the pit, and suddenly one of our “Russian” guys runs out, like a hero, and scoops her up.
Corps de Ballet at American Ballet Theatre
First role: Soldier. I was 5 and I wasn’t even doing ballet yet; I was in my town’s local karate school.
Favorite roles: Cavalier, Arabian, Spanish, Russian—anytime I get the chance to really dance.
Performances per season: 20–30
How do you stay sane? Take it one show at a time. If you start the countdown too early, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
How do you keep up your stamina? I’ll confess to being a total gym rat. I do a lot of cross-training, and take classes in mixed martial arts and Krav Maga, which is Israeli self-defense. If I have a ridiculously demanding show day, adding the gym on top of it is too much, but otherwise, I want to make sure that I get my heart rate up.
Most unique Nutcracker you’ve done? When I performed as a guest in the Netherlands. Nutcracker isn’t a big tradition there, so they had a very unusual version. Instead of Mother Ginger, they had a giant rabbi—and these kids ran out in sequin costumes and started break-dancing!
What goes through your head when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Oh, it’s awful. Painful. Especially when you’re younger, you start rehearsing so early in the year that by the time December comes around, you’re thinking, If I hear this music one more time, I’ll convert to Judaism!
Corps de Ballet at New York City Ballet
First role: Soldier
Favorite role: Dewdrop
Performances per season: About 50
How do you keep up your stamina? I usually eat two dinners, one before the show and one after. Sometimes I’ll cook a big meal at the beginning of the week, like pasta with vegetables in it, and then carry it with me to eat before performances. I don’t like dancing on an empty stomach.
Any Nutcracker traditions? In the dressing room, during the halfway point of each show we used to always play the song “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi: “Whoa, we’re halfway there...”
Any blooper stories? One night during “Waltz of the Flowers,” a big piece of marley tape came up on the stage. I knew it’d be pretty distracting. At the very end, when we posed and bowed, the tape was right in front of me, so I did a huge swoop down and ripped it off.
What goes through your head when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? It’s almost like The Red Shoes. You can’t help but want to do the choreography to it. No one else even notices the music, but inside, you’re doing the dance.
Meaghan Grace Hinkis
First Artist at The Royal Ballet
First role: Clara
Favorite role: Clara in The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker
Performances per season: 25–30
All-time favorite Sugar Plums: Marianela Nuñez and Alina Cojocaru
Best gift you’ve received backstage? Last year at my first Royal Ballet show as Clara, I got a bouquet of flowers from the corps at ABT, where I used to dance. It was incredible to have that support from such great girls back in New York.
Any Nutcracker traditions? We decorate the dressing rooms. It’s a little competition, and whichever row has the best decorations wins.
Oddest Nutcracker memory? Over the years, I think I’ve eaten pounds of snow. There’s so much running around in the snow scenes in both ABT’s and The Royal Ballet’s productions that you swallow a ton.
What do you do on Christmas Day? This past year, my whole family came over to London. My brother, sister and I woke up early to open our stockings, like little kids. We went to dinner at a traditional English restaurant, and just spent the day together, which is really what it’s about for me.
Soloist at San Francisco Ballet
First role: Mouse. Last year marked 20 years of doing Nutcracker, so my mom gave me a crystal figurine of a ballerina to celebrate.
Favorite role: As a child, Polichinelle. I’d wanted to be one for several years, and it was an amazing thing!
Performances per season: 30–35
How do you stay sane? Because we do two shows a day, every day, it can start to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. The best thing is to inject a little spontaneity, like going out to lunch with a friend. And I like to have a different motivation for each performance. Some days, I’ll focus on my port de bras, or in the party scene I’ll add a different adjective in front of my role, like “Today I’m the spunky maid.” Or the “flustered maid.” In the past, we’ve tried to count how many balancés were in the “Waltz of the Flowers”—I think it was upwards of 70.
Any blooper stories? So many! Since I play the maid in the party scene, our master of props has me do his dirty work. I’ll be carrying glasses around and he’ll say, “Something fell into the trap door. Can you go dig it out?” Or, “We forgot to turn the remote control couch on! Will you go flip the switch on the bottom?” There were several days that I think I saved the show!
Favorite Nutcracker memory? On Christmas Eve, our orchestra plays carols as the audience leaves. Two years ago when I was in the corps de ballet, I was taking off toward the dressing rooms, and one of our ballet mistresses was chasing me down saying, “Helgi wants to talk to you!” I thought, Oh no, what did I do wrong? He pulled me and a couple of my colleagues over and said, “You’ve been dancing so well this season that I want to make you soloists, effective immediately.” Meanwhile, the orchestra was playing “Joy to the World” in the background.
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston. She is currently a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College.