Samuel Zaldivar as Boston Ballet's lovable party scene bear. Courtesy Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Mastering the Magic: 5 Dancers On How They Manage The Nutcracker's More Cumbersome Props and Costumes

For dancers, The Nutcracker isn't all winter wonderlands and charming sweets. To bring this ballet to life, we have to spar with swords (often while wearing a clunky head), pirouette in animal suits, and perform day after day with a host of other potentially hazardous costumes and props. Despite the dangers, Nutcracker's eccentric roles can be the most fun to perform. As five dancers describe, Nutcracker's whimsical, albeit taxing, accoutrements have their own kind of magic.


Party Scene Bear: Daniel Durrett, Boston Ballet

Samuel Zaldivar in Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Boston Ballet's fluffy, dancing bear is a veritable celebrity around Beantown during Nutcracker season. In addition to busting out in the ballet's party scene, he shows up on social media to announce ticket sales and performs around the city for special events. As corps member Daniel Durrett has learned, however, that lovable bear head is not exactly light and fuzzy, and the variation—with plenty of turns and traveling jumps—is anything but simple. Durrett recalls, "There was one show when the head strap broke mid-jump and thankfully it was towards the end of the solo, because I couldn't see anything." The head shifted around particularly while spotting, but he managed to finish without taking out any party children.

Durrett prepares for shows by giving himself a barre, putting the bear suit on early and running the solo twice to get used to the head and moving in the costume. Despite some minor neck soreness after his first few times, Durrett says, "I absolutely love performing as the bear. It's such an honor to get to perform such a crowd-pleasing role."

Mouse King: ​Adam Hartley, Oregon Ballet Theatre

OBT's Mouse King (portrayed here by principal Peter Franc) has six heads. Photo by James McGrew, Courtesy OBT.

In Oregon Ballet Theatre's Balanchine Nutcracker production, dancers like company artist Adam Hartley have to wear a six-headed Mouse King suit. And it's quite the contraption. "The first part you have to put on has all the smaller heads," says Hartley. "It's like a big harness to attach to your torso. It feels like what I imagine a parachute would be like with a bunch of straps and connections. And then you have to put on the mouse suit, which is basically a giant piece of fur stuffed with tulle." The main head has two little eye screens to see out of. He dons this last, waiting as long as possible before "sealing in the heat."

Hartley describes the costume as that of a sporting mascot's, with a neck brace: lots of volume with little airflow, peripheral vision, mobility or even hearing. Despite everything working against him, he says, dancing the Mouse King role is an opportunity to hone his dramatic acting skills. "I can come out of my shell a little more and do things that I normally would be too embarrassed to do."

Mother Buffoon: Trevor Naumann, Ballet West

Trevor Naumann as Mother Buffoon. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West.

For the two dancers that make up the Mother Buffoon role in Ballet West's Nutcracker, the perils are many. The bottom man (the legs) wears protective gloves to push the massive, wheeled steel dress frame around the stage, which he can barely see through the overlaying tulle. The top man stands on a tall, horseshoe-shaped platform with only his upper body exposed. He wears the makeup and wig, waves the fan and has to pull quite a few strings—literally. "I've had all sorts of incidences where I'm trying to fan myself and grab the dress rope, and then that rope gets caught on the fan rope," jokes demi-soloist Trevor Naumann.

Complicating matters are the eight small children dressed like bees who emerge from the dress. There's no shortage of chatter under there, Naumann explains, and sometimes their tiny hands dart out to pinch and tickle both company dancers' legs. Distractions or not, he says, "I love doing that part. You get done early, people love you—it's fabulous." However, he stresses, it's buffoonery with restraint: "You can get in quite a bit of trouble if the jokes become vulgar or out of character. Our boss always says to remember, you're a mother."

Nutcracker Doll: ​Rob Morrow, Louisville Ballet

After sweating through the battle scene in the Nutcracker head, Morrow transforms into the Prince. Photo by Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

As the ballet's namesake, the Nutcracker doll is somewhat crucial to the proceedings. In Louisville Ballet's production, says company member Rob Morrow, the Nutcracker does the party scene and battle scene, then goes straight into dancing the snow pas de deux with Marie. He essentially has to wear two costumes: the doll tunic with toy-appropriate buttons, and the princely layer underneath. When the outer layer and head come off, Morrow says, he's not just worried about stamina for the next scene: "I have all this gel in my hair, trying to look princely before the show, and then I have a helmet pushing it down. So after I take it off I'm like, 'Is my hair okay?' "

Wearing the head isn't all bad. In the party scene, Morrow says, "you kind of get a moment to get your stage legs without really being seen." But thick suits and poor visibility might result in a missed cue. At one point during the battle scene, the Nutcracker is supposed to kill a rat after landing from a double saut de basque—yet with limited visibility, Morrow sometimes swipes air with his sword instead of fur. When this happens, he says, Marie steps in to help. She whispers to the rat, "Go!" or "Die!" Nutcracker: a team effort.

Mirliton​: Elizabeth Powell, San Francisco Ballet

Kimberly Marie Olivier twirls the seven-foot ribbon. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

In San Francisco Ballet's production, the Act II Mirlitons are three colorful cancan girls complete with garter belts, bright teal tights and pointe shoes. Tall hair feathers and seven-foot handheld ribbons (for flicking and twirling) complete the costume, and these latter two items can hinder an already difficult dance. "We do a double attitude turn, and at the very end of it, you have to whip the ribbon up a little bit more so it comes completely around again," says soloist Elizabeth Powell. "Sometimes I'll feel it go around my wrist or kind of swipe my feather."

Even though dancers start working with the ribbons on the first day of rehearsals, Powell has seen and experienced a host of onstage mishaps in her eight years of dancing the role. Once, her ribbon got completely tied up with another dancer's, and no amount of creative flicking could disentangle the knot. They made a snap decision to toss the props offstage rather than muddle through the choreography. Powell's best advice for stress-inducing props is to keep things in perspective: "If something crazy does happen, it's live theater. It wouldn't be the first time and it won't be the last."

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Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

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Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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