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.
Allison Miller: Houston Ballet First Soloist
I had been in the corps for about three years before I was cast as Snow Queen. I'd understudied the role before, but when I was cast to actually do it, I was so excited. It was such an honor to be added to that list of company dancers who I'd watched for so many years and idolized.
One of the biggest challenges was that I had to be able to do the technical stuff, but I also had to be the Snow Queen. You're taking Clara through the snow scene, telling her the story, and you have to take the audience along, too. Because when the audience sees you concentrating, you don't look like you're trying to tell them, or Clara, anything. I struggled with conserving my energy so I could make it through the steps and still keep acting—because that's the first thing that goes, for me. Towards the end, I have these jetés, right when you don't want to do anything else. But that's the kind of challenge I love. Pushing through the big jumps, I thought: It doesn't matter if I can't walk after this, I'm going to do it!
Snow Queen is a lot to be handed when you're just a corps dancer—you want to impress everybody. But it was more exciting than intimidating. It gave me freedom, after working so hard to stay in line in the corps, to just dance by myself, play with musicality and port de bras, to see what looked best on me. And being coached was so fun. After my first year as Snow Queen, I danced featured roles in La Bayadère and Ballo della Regina that continued my momentum, and a couple of years later I was promoted to demi-soloist.