Courtesy Dayton Ballet

For the First Time Ever, Dayton Ballet Has a Female Nutcracker

A few months ago, Dayton Ballet's artistic director, Karen Russo Burke, approached Miranda Dafoe with an unorthodox idea: She wanted to cast a woman in the role of the Nutcracker in the company's holiday production, and she was tapping Dafoe.

"I honestly was pretty shocked," says the Dayton Ballet dancer. "But the more I thought about it, I thought, You know what? Clara's dreaming the whole thing from the battle into the Land of the Sweets. So why can't she dream of a woman saving her from the rats and taking her on this journey?"


A performance image of the Nutcracker in front of Clara. Each are doing an arabesque in an opposite direction of the other.

Dafoe as the Nutcracker, with Chelsea Brecht as Clara

Courtesy Dayton Ballet

Not only does Dafoe like the message it sends to girls in the audience, but, she says, "it shows that we're evolving our Nutcracker based on how society is evolving too."

Dayton Ballet's production, which continues through December 23, features two casts—one of which has a male Nutcracker, and one with a female Nutcracker. That meant making slight modifications to the character's choreography and costume. "Some of the musicality had more time for jumps, so Karen and I worked together to figure out jumps and turns that would read as strong but also feminine," says Dafoe.

"I'm still wearing the Nut head," she laughs, noting the difficulties of dancing with such an unwieldy costume piece. Hers, though, doesn't have a beard, which keeps her identity more ambiguous. Unless the audience has read the program beforehand, Dafoe says, they may not realize the Nutcracker is played by a woman until the end of the Battle Scene. Her Nutcracker head comes off, unveiling her flowing hair.

Dafoe walks down stairs, while wearing warm-up clothes and holding the Nutcracker head.

Courtesy Dayton Ballet

In Dayton Ballet's version, Clara is played by a dancer from its school, and the choreography doesn't involve partnering between her and the Nutcracker. "I thought a lot about how I wanted to approach the relationship," says Dafoe, "and I settled on it being motherly and a role model, but also sisterly. I want it to be relatable to Clara and also to young girls in the audience." As she holds Clara's hand, leading her through the Snow Scene and Land of the Sweets, Dafoe says, "I'm also a little giddy and excited too. I'm not just this adult in her world."

In addition to the message of female empowerment, Burke also wanted the role to nod to women in the military.

Overall, Dafoe sees the production as a reflection of what Dayton has been through. "We had a big tornado last spring, and also the shooting in the Oregon District. We're so grateful for our police officers." In the Battle Scene, prop guns were traded out for candy canes. "We're really conscious of what's going on in the community, and we want our audience to feel that. Not only are we following the feminist movement, but we wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that we went through this big trauma," she says.

Though this debut is daunting and exciting for Dafoe, ultimately, she's in favor of the gender swap. "I'm hoping that other companies are inspired to evolve their Nutcracker similarly—or in a different way—just so that it can be more accessible," she says. "Ballet can be a bit overwhelming or people can be afraid to go. But it's a lot more relatable than you'd think. As long as we can reach a bigger audience, that's what I'm here for."

Latest Posts


Getty Images

The History of Pointe Shoes: The Landmark Moments That Made Ballet's Signature Shoe What It Is Today

Pointe shoes, with their ability to elevate a dancer both literally and metaphorically to a superhuman realm, are the ultimate symbol of a ballerina's ethereality and hard work. For students, receiving a first pair of pointe shoes is a rite of passage. The shoes carry an almost mystical allure: They're an endless source of lore and ritual, with tips, tricks and stories passed down over generations.

The history of pointe shoes reveals how a delicately darned slipper introduced in the 1820s has transformed into a technical tool that offers dancers the utmost freedom onstage today.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

How Coming Back to Ballet After Years Away Has Saved Me During the Pandemic Shutdown

I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet lesson. My mom had dressed me in a pink leotard with matching tights, skirt and slippers. She drove me on a Saturday morning to a ballet academy in downtown Caguas, the town in Puerto Rico where I grew up. I don't remember much from the first lesson, but I do recall the reverence. My teacher Mónica asked the class if someone wanted to volunteer to lead. She was surprised I—the new girl—was the one to raise my hand.

I made up most of the steps, mimicking the ballerinas I had seen on TV and videos. At one point, Mónica stepped in and asked me to lead the class in a bow. I followed her directions and curtseyed in front of the mirror with one leg behind me and a gentle nod. I looked up to find myself in awe of what I had just done.

This was the same feeling I had when, after years away from dance, I finished my first YouTube ballet class at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
La'Toya Princess Jackson, Courtesy MoBBallet

Join Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet for Its 2020 Virtual Symposium

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded in 2015 by writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard to preserve and promote the stories of Black ballet dancers, is offering three weekends of interactive education and conversation this month through its 2020 Virtual Symposium. The conference, titled "Education, Communication, Restoration," encourages participants to engage in candid discussions concerning racial inequality and social justice in ballet. While it is a space that centers on Blackness, all are welcome. Held August 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28, MoBBallet's second annual symposium will allow dancers to receive mentorship and openly speak about their personal experiences in a safe and empowering environment.

The first event, For Us By Us (FUBU) Town Hall, is a free community discussion on August 14 from 3:30–4:30 pm EDT via Zoom, followed by a forum for ballet leadership. The town hall format encourages active engagement (participants can raise their hands and respond in real time), but the registration invoice also contains a form for submitting questions in advance. The following discussions, forums and presentations include topics like company life as a Black dancer, developing personal activism, issues of equity and colorism in ballet companies, and more. Tickets range from free to $12 for each 60- to 80-minute event.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks