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

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

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

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.

Ji Young Chae: Boston Ballet Soloist

Chen and Junxiong Zhao perform the grand pas at the competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

When my partner Junxiong Zhao and I were cast to do the grand pas in Nutcracker last year, I was very happy. But it was pretty scary because I was in the corps and had never done a principal role. Because of that, I felt I had to push more than other dancers who had done it already. I really wanted to be able to prove that I could do it, and show everyone who I really am.

Junxiong and I were rehearsing the grand pas for both the Boston Ballet performances and the 2015 Erik Bruhn competition, so we had a really heavy schedule. But now I realize it was a great opportunity to get really strong. I tried to eat well, rest well, get massages, ice every night—I took care of myself more than usual. We were rehearsing a contemporary piece for the competition, too, and working on that at the same time as the grand pas actually helped me learn how to move and solve some problems with classical partnering.

It was challenging to build a character and show my personality. But with each performance, I got more comfortable and confident. Even though we were so nervous before our first show, when it was over I was relieved, proud and happy—but I wanted to do it again, and do more. Junxiong says you have to do something over and over to get it as close to perfect as you can, and I think that's part of why I was promoted to soloist at the end of the season.

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