My Nutcracker Breakout: How the Holiday Classic Boosted 4 Dancers' Careers

Allison Miller in The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Here it comes—the annual Nutcracker marathon, a grueling race for the corps de ballet. But every year, a few young dancers face a surprising, yet thrilling, new test. With so many performances, directors can create multiple casts, and take a chance on corps members with budding potential. “If I have an up-and-coming corps dancer who's showing growth, dynamism, a new energy and strength," says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, “Nutcracker is an excellent time to give her an opportunity to break out from the ensemble into a more leading role."

But adding a major role like Sugar Plum, Snow Queen, Dew Drop or the Prince to an already exhausting corps schedule is a daunting prospect. Dancing (and keeping pace with) experienced principals means conquering demanding choreography, partnering with finesse and connecting with the audience—tough challenges for those unfamiliar with center stage. But a successful debut can mean further opportunities and an eventual promotion. “If a dancer absorbs the details and refinement of the role, and brings a magical quality to the stage, that says this person is ready to move on to greater roles," says Sklute. Here, four leading dancers share how their Nutcracker breakout led to surprising self-discoveries and launched a new phase of their careers.


Sayaka Ohtaki: Ballet West First Soloist

Ohtaki (center) and artists of Ballet West in "Waltz of the Flowers." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

The first time I did Sugar Plum was also the first time I got a review. The writer said I looked "mischievous"—which I kind of liked! You don't think of Sugar Plum as mischievous, but I like being different than other people and creating my own style.

I love acting—it's my passion. But Sugar Plum was challenging because I simply didn't know if I had enough stamina. It looks cute and charming, but you never stop dancing, and it's pretty long (and Salt Lake City is at such a high altitude). We only had a week or two to prepare, and I was also doing all the other female parts in Nutcracker. But I couldn't be tired! I had to make myself eat, a lot, in order to recover my energy. Every night before bed, I'd think through all the roles I had to do the next day. It was a stressful month.

During my first show, I was really exhausted. Being nervous eats your energy, and it was scary to be so out of breath, feel my muscles cramping and not feel like I could finish my solo. I saw the other dancers watching me from the wings, and hearing them cheer me on gave me energy and a smile. Afterwards was pure joy! But later, I realized where I could do things better. I'm still fighting with that, but with Nutcracker, you always have another chance. It's a good time to grow.

The biggest reward was showing my director I could do a lead role. After Sugar Plum, my next big role was Kitri—and then I was promoted to soloist.

Ballet Careers
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

Today's ballet dancer needs a lot from a pointe shoe. "What I did 20 years ago is not what these dancers are doing now," says New York City Ballet shoe manager Linnette Roe. "They are expected to go harder, longer days. They are expected to go from sneakers, to pointe shoes, to character shoes, to barefoot and back to pointe shoes all in a day."

The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

We dug into the details of Stretch Pointe's most game-changing features:

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Ballet Stars
Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Training
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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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