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.
Michael Sayre: BalletMet Company Dancer
I was cast as the Prince during my first season with BalletMet. I think it was intended to break me in, and it really did just that.
My partner was very experienced. She was so supportive and told me what I needed to do. The pas de deux was the most challenging partnering I'd ever done, and it didn't always go perfectly—there's an overhead press lift that I only managed to get to full height in two out of our five shows, which was disappointing. But since then, I'm pleased to report I have a much better track record! And that's one of the most rewarding things—doing it better the next year.
I did a lot of mental and physical preparation before each show to calm my nerves. My back would get tight from all the partnering, so I'd stretch it a lot, do sit-ups, push-ups and a long barre. I'd go through all the choreography in my head, remember my notes, envision it being done.
What was most valuable was becoming more confident onstage. It also felt good to be valued and to know that I was contributing in productive and positive ways to the company. Knowing now that the task in front of me is possible, and that I'm capable of it— which I hadn't always been able to tell myself—helps me dance better, act better and be more fearless.