Visions of Sugar Plums
How The Nutcracker Draws Girls to a Life of Dance
The annual temporary madness has descended upon us. We are caught in the holiday whirlpool of cards, gifts, office parties, and exhausting waiting lines. Excerpts of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker play everywhere. As I watch others threaten to tear their hair out if they hear the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" one more time, I smile to myself, thinking that I will never get tired of it. I remember that Christmas nearly 20 years ago when I danced in The Nutcracker with the Houston Ballet. When I was 10, I was going to be a ballerina for real. We lived in the small community of Lake Jackson, about an hour and a half outside of Houston. When I was accepted into the Houston Ballet Academy, it made the local newspaper. When I was selected to be in the company's production of The Nutcracker, I thought my mother would explode with joy.
For aspiring ballerinas, The Nutcracker is a rite of passage. Find me an American ballet dancer who hasn't appeared in The Nutcracker (in any form) and I will eat the rock you found her under. All young ballerinas want to be Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy, but those parts are at the top of a complicated hierarchy, which varies from version to version and from city to city. In Houston in 1980, the only parts offered to young academy students were soldiers and mice in the battle scene, "Gingers" -- i.e., Mother Ginger's children, who pop out from under her skirt during Act Two -- and, at the top of the food chain, "Party Scene" children, who mimed and danced in Act One and got to wear the best costumes. I was one of the "Gingers." We looked like Raggedy Ann dolls and our dance was not terribly balletic, but it didn't matter. It was my first time in a professional production and the experience was truly magical.
My parents, however, have slightly more mundane memories of that time. The academy informed us that we had to dedicate our lives to the production from early November until the end of the run on December 30. That meant that, besides the regular classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays, we had to attend mandatory rehearsals three days per week, and we were not allowed to miss a single rehearsal. The only reason you missed rehearsal was if you were dead, because there were at least 20 other little girls waiting to take over the coveted part if you could not fulfill the contract. For my mom and I, the months of November and December were a blur of rehearsals, costume fittings, and the ever-present commute. Mom did her grocery shopping and errands in Houston and made Christmas presents while she waited for me. Dad took care of the house and my brothers, and I have the sneaking suspicion that they ate a lot of scrambled eggs and hash browns (Dad's specialty back then). I rehearsed and fell asleep in the car on the way home.
Houston Ballet's 1980 production of The Nutcracker opened on December 19, my mother's birthday. She remarked that it was very thoughtful of them to give her such a great birthday present and I agreed wholeheartedly. It would end up being my present to her as well. My whole family came to the premiere, and my parents paid for everyone's tickets at the exorbitant price of $10 a seat. Dad said that the performance was breathtaking and that the attention to detail was worth the work.
I remember the shuffle onstage: several stagehands, a ballerina, and 10 or so nervous young girls under the giant rolling dress. I remember the bright lights and the innocent choreography. I was in seven or eight of the performances, and a few times our chaperones would bring us backstage early and we would worship the older dancers. For us, they were gods and goddesses, flushed and breathing heavily as they exited, dropping character as they passed through the wings. After our dance, we waited backstage for the final bow, and I memorized parts of the Sugar Plum Fairy variation and dreamed of the day when I would dance that role. Forget Clara; this was what ballet was all about: a powerful, ethereal being who entranced the Nutcracker Prince and the audience. I wanted to be her.
After the curtain fell on the final performance, we heard a crash and the sound of a cable slipping and we were covered with tons of paper snow. Sweaty, white-flocked dancers hauled children onto their shoulders, impromptu snow fights broke out, and laughter rang out everywhere. It is an experience that I will never forget and a show that set the course of my life as an artist and performer. Although I ultimately chose to pursue a career in modern dance rather than ballet, I still have a great fondness for The Nutcracker. The 10-year-old ballerina inside of me still wants to inhabit the body of that dancer and experience the challenging and technically spectacular variation every time I hear the first few notes.
Those Nutcracker dreams of my childhood came rushing back to me recently, during a conversation with three of the "Bon-Bons" -- another name for the children who appear with Mother Ginger -- in Ballet Austin's current version of The Nutcracker. Sophia Gutierrez, Shannon Bedortha, and Margaret Brown, all either age 10 or 11, are Ballet Austin Academy students who all share the dream. They know firsthand the work that goes into performing. They've been in rehearsal for The Nutcracker since August and spent a good chunk of their Saturdays in the studio repeating and refining their dance. They understand and accept that they will have to miss out on parties and other holiday celebrations to participate in the production and will have to endure sore muscles, fatigue, and added responsibilities besides. Why then do they choose to dance? What is it about dance that makes them accept the hardship and hard work? "Dance is a way to speak from your heart," Gutierrez explains. Bedortha and Brown nod in agreement, and Brown quickly adds that knowing how to dance makes her feel special and that she loves the "challenge of getting a step right" in class. Bedortha mentions the benefits of taking class at a studio that draws students from all over the Austin area, remarking that dance allows her to "meet new people and make new friends." For them, performing with the company is the ultimate honor. In rehearsals, academy students get to see the professional dancers as real people struggling with the limitations of their bodies and rejoicing in their technical triumphs. Backstage, the young ones witness the professionals honing their skills onstage as they negotiate the delights and perils of live performance.
Besides your own experiences as a performer, much of what you learn about the craft comes from watching experienced performers that you admire. From them, you learn how to swallow the butterflies, how to accept the racing heart, the nerves, and the urgent need to pee, and how to put on your performance face -- the open awareness, the natural smile that invites the audience to watch. Margaret Brown likens performing in The Nutcracker to a "beautiful and magical dream," and when you're young, it truly is a child's dream. There are beautiful costumes to wear, beautiful people performing, and proud parents in the audience. But the one factor above all others that keeps these girls and other dancers dancing is the ecstatic state that cannot be described adequately in words. It is the joy of expressing one's inner spirit through movement.
All three girls intend to pursue careers as professional dancers, which means signing on for endless classes and rehearsals, financial insecurity, casting disappointments, and possible injuries. They point out that many people they meet don't appreciate how difficult dance training really is and that the other kids at school sometimes make fun of them. I would like to tell them that it will be different when they grow up, but I can't. It is not an easy life. But choosing dance as a career means that they will be remaining true to their young dreams. That reward alone is worth the hard work and sacrifice. Far too many good people get lost along the way. The three insightful Bon-Bons agree that without dance, their lives would be "very dull and boring." Ballet training makes them more disciplined students both at school and in the studio, and it opens up a bigger world of possibilities to them. For Shannon Bedortha, her favorite place to be is in the dance world at Ballet Austin. Sophia Gutierrez, brows wrinkling and arms folding, finds that she cannot even imagine her life without ballet.
I found these girls' passion for dance infectious and inspiring. It took me back to a time when all I wanted to do was dance and reminded me that I need to keep that mission in mind throughout my adult life. It is easy to get lost. Dancing is not a place that you get to and hang out; it is a constant process, just like class and rehearsal. In many ways, my dance training better prepared me to handle the long days and the multitasking organizational skills I need to survive as an adult dancer. My mother once referred to dancing as a disease. If I die while still infected with the need to dance, I will consider myself quite lucky.
The Ballet Austin production of The Nutcracker, with new choreography by Stephen Mills, runs through Thursday, Dec. 23, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 476-2163 for info.