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Company Life: Making "Nutcracker" Magic

Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre establishes a new benchmark in demanding pas de deux. Like all of the choreographer’s work, the movement blends effortless naturalism with extraordinary physical challenges. The lead couple twirl and jeté in an over-the-top romantic fantasy, culminating in a one-armed lift that raises the ballerina above her prince’s head in a vision of ecstatic love. Pointe asked Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, one of the couples on whom the pas was made, to describe their recollections of rehearsing it.  


Gillian Murphy
When Alexei Ratmansky was making the grand pas, he alternated between demonstrating the steps and discussing the mood he was aiming for; then he would observe how each couple interpreted his direction. We all became a part of his creative process, and he allowed each couple their individual touches within the set choreography.

For David and myself, that freedom was intensely inspiring as well as a challenge. Alexei’s intricate neoclassical choreography is far more difficult in terms of execution and stamina than the traditional Nutcracker pas. His movements constantly go on and off balance, change direction and vary dynamic. For instance, many quick sequences are juxtaposed with brief moments of stillness or sustained expansion. The tricky, subtle partnering pushed David and me to be absolutely in sync with each other as we strived for a balance between abandon and control.

I enjoy dancing with David, and we both love examining the details of partnering that hopefully add up to a seamless whole. During the rehearsal process, we explore how much or little we need to help each other in various moments. In particular, the one-handed, seated lift at the end of this strenuous piece is an act of carefully coordinated willpower.

Before stepping onstage, we remind each other to stay in the moment and to be connected to and inspired by the music. This pas de deux is first and foremost an expression of our characters’ emotional journeys, and my primary aim is to convey Clara’s inner sense of wonder and her playful, imaginative nature—along with her delight and trepidation at becoming a ballerina and falling in love with her prince.


David Hallberg
The grand pas is both terrifying and captivating. All in 10 minutes. When Gillian Murphy and I initially started working on it, my notions of the traditional version were left at the door. Alexei began with small nuances here, gentle touches there. I wrongly assumed this would continue throughout. As rehearsals pushed on, the music building with every measure, the pas became a luminous beast. The choreography starts ever so quietly, then flips up and around, lifting us as high as humanly possible, embodying love’s sense of abandon.

The best way to learn how to portray Alexei’s movement is to watch him. The way he moves is grounded, full, complete, and it’s the clearest indication of what he wants. Instead of a classical dancer doing classical steps, he asks for a richer movement quality, one that communicates true emotion through the choreography. The best example of this comes in the pas de deux’s opening section. The child versions of Clara and the Prince, who have embarked on this magical journey together, find themselves at the front of the stage. As doors open at the back, they see their older selves, Gillian and myself. The two pairs of dancers, children and adults, mirror each other’s movement, creating the illusion that the children are seeing themselves in the future. They study one another, and in a youthful rush of excitement change places, the young couple leaving the stage while their older selves continue. With this short sequence, Alexei conveys a sense of innocence and naiveté.

I’ll never forget our initial studio run-through before the premiere. The company members watched silently. Gillian and I started slow, soft, and then moved faster, quicker, twisting in unison, lifting like a torch. We were at turns terrified, driven, uninhibited, and by the end of the pas, our energy was spent. The room erupted. It was then, in between gasps for breath, that we knew Alexei had conceived a creative masterstroke.

















Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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Pointe Stars
Jurgita Dronina as Kitri in "Don Quixote." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

When Jurgita Dronina first danced Kitri for a guest performance of Don Quixote with Teatro Filarmonico-Fondazione Arena Di Verona, she was in essence cast against type. "Before Kitri, I was dancing only lyrical or dramatic roles, so I had to start from scratch in finding my own signature in the steps and my own interpretation of the character," says Dronina, who was dancing with Royal Swedish Ballet at the time.

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