Dancing the Christmas Spirit
An Eight-Year-Old Fan of 'The Nutcracker' Learns How Ballet Austin Makes Its Holiday Magic
As a Christmas tradition, my family goes to see the ballet of The Nutcracker. It helps Christmas feel like Christmas. To me, Christmas is a season of joy and miracles and love, a time to celebrate, and those are all things that are part of The Nutcracker. I carry that wonderful feeling I have after seeing the ballet the rest of the Christmas season, and I feel more in the Christmas spirit.
My parents have taken me to The Nutcracker every year since I was three years old. I've seen it five times, and I can't wait to see it again this year. We always see Ballet Austin perform it, and I love the way they do it. I even saw them do The Nutzy Nutcracker a couple of years ago and thought it was wonderfully funny. Sometimes when I get home from seeing Ballet Austin do The Nutcracker, I put on the CD of the music and try to do parts of the dances. Sometimes I'm Clara and sometimes I'm the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Snow Queen.
Ever since I was little, I always wanted to talk to a real ballerina or a choreographer. This year, I got the chance. On Friday, Dec. 1, I went to the Old Firehouse where Ballet Austin has its studios to interview Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin and the choreographer of The Nutcracker, and Gina Patterson, who's dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen, Clara's mother, and Clara's governess in this year's Nutcracker. (She doesn't dance all those parts every performance. She only plays two characters each night, either Clara's mother and the Sugar Plum Fairy or Clara's governess and the Snow Queen. She switches off with other dancers.) We went up to one of the studios and took some photos, then went down to Mr. Mills' office to talk. They were very nice and funny, and I learned a lot about them and their jobs and their experiences of doing The Nutcracker.
Austin Chronicle: How do you know how to make the dances graceful and beautiful?
Stephen Mills: Hmmm. Well, I get an idea for a ballet that I want to do, then I work with the dancers to find out what it is that they do best. Like the Sugar Plum Fairy, which Gina does, I work to find out what movements she feels comfortable doing, then I put one step with another step and just keep adding steps together until we have a phrase, and then we just keep doing that until we have a whole ballet. So it's kind of a long process. It takes about six weeks to make a new ballet.
AC: Why did you want to become a choreographer?
Mills: Well, every choreographer starts as a dancer, so I went to ballet school, then I got into a company, and I was very inspired by the choreographers I worked with, who taught me dances. I liked being in their dances, and I liked to understand the structure that they used in their dances. It's like being with a very inspiring teacher and then you go on to be a teacher, or your father or mother is a doctor and you're very inspired by what they do, so you go on to do that. It's kinda like that.
AC: Did you see The Nutcracker when you were a boy?
Mills: No. I didn't even see ballet when I was a boy. I didn't start dancing until I was 17, so the first time I saw Nutcracker, I was in Nutcracker. I was 19.
AC: Who were you in The Nutcracker?
Mills: I was the Prince. But I've done everything -- well, all the male roles. I've been a father, and I've been a Spanish dancer, and I've -- hold on, I've not been Arabian. But I've been a Russian dancer and a Spanish dancer and a Flower and the Prince, so I've done lots of different things.
AC: Have you been Chocolate?
Mills: Chocolate is Spanish, right? Let's see, Chinese is tea, Arabian is coffee, Spanish is chocolate. Yes, I have.
AC: What are your favorite parts of The Nutcracker?
Mills: In my Nutcracker or in just every Nutcracker, 'cause every Nutcracker is different. I'll answer your question both ways. One of my favorite parts in someone else's Nutcracker was when I was in the Cincinnati Ballet, and in the first act there are mechanical dolls, and they were poodles. There was a white poodle and there was a black poodle, and I really liked that. I thought they were really good. In my Nutcracker, my favorite part is the Snowflakes.
AC: My favorite character is Clara. I think she's brave, and I like that she saves the Nutcracker and that she's a girl like me. How do you feel about Clara?
Mills: Well, it depends on from year to year. [laughter] I like Clara. I think you're absolutely right. She's very brave. I think probably if I were a little girl and I walked into a roomful of rats, I'd faint. I wouldn't be very brave. She's very brave. She saves the Nutcracker. If it weren't for her, he would have died, right? So I think that you're right. You're answering the questions for me. Stop it! [laughter]
AC: How do you make your dances show that feeling?
Mills: About Clara or all the dancers?
AC: About Clara or any dancer.
Mills: I set up the scene and I tell the dancers what they're supposed to do, and then I tell them why they're supposed to do it, and sometimes I act it out for them to give them an idea, you know, of what they need to think about, what they need to be doing in that scene. I don't make a very good Clara, I have to tell you. But sometimes I have to act it out. Is that it?
Mills: Did I pass? [laughter]
AC: Why did you want to become a ballerina?
Gina Patterson: Why? Because I saw Swan Lake, and I thought I had to do that. Because they were so beautiful.
AC: Do you enjoy being in The Nutcracker?
Patterson: I do.
AC: Have you ever played another character in The Nutcracker?
Patterson: I've played lots of characters. I've played the maid and the mama, and I've played Spanish or Chocolate and Chinese and Arabian and Snowflakes ... I guess I've done it all. Well, not Fritz.
Mills: Have you ever done Clara?
Patterson: I was never a Clara. I wasn't a Clara because I wasn't a child in The Nutcracker.
AC: Which is your favorite?
Patterson: Sugar Plum.
Patterson: Why? Because I think Nutcracker goes along with the Christmas spirit, and it's an opportunity to share and to show your love and a chance to give the audience something magical.
AC: Now that I take ballet, I know how hard it is. What's the hardest part of dancing The Nutcracker for you?
Patterson: Is that a trick question? [laughter] Not being nervous and remembering what it's about.
AC: How many years did it take you to be able to stand up on your toes?
Patterson: It didn't take me very long. I just hopped up and stayed there. [laughter] It took me about ... Well, hopefully when you start pointe, you're strong enough that you can stay up there, so pretty much when I started in pointe shoes, I was able to do it.
Mills: Do you do pointe work yet?
Mills: You study for about four years, then you start. First it's about five minutes at the barre, then you work your way up to about 30 minutes at the barre, then before long you're taking a whole class on pointe, so it takes years.
Patterson: Is that all? Did I pass?
Mills: I think you got a B+. [laughter] I think I got a C.
AC: Are people playing different parts in different shows?
Mills: Every night.
AC: Is it ever confusing switching parts from night to night?
Mills: When I did Nutcracker, I danced Chinese one night and danced Russian another night. They're two completely different dances. The problem comes having three casts of parents, when you might be a parent in the first act and your place in the dance is maybe on the other side and the choreography is reversed, or you're in a different spot upstage or downstage. Then it becomes confusing. In this Nutcracker, Clara's governess becomes the Snow Queen. All the characters from the party go into her dream, so the Sugar Plum and Cavalier are her mother and father. So Gina, being the Sugar Plum in one cast and the Snow Queen in another cast, has to remember all the business that the governess has to do, carrying glasses and inviting guests in, handing out gifts, and what the mother has to do as well, which is completely different. In that respect, it can become difficult.
Patterson: When I was with this other company, I did three different parts in Waltz of the Flowers. I did two corps spots and a lead. So when he was saying, that's one of the problems when your steps are reversed, I actually jumped in the wrong place one night.
Mills: And that would be different because it's the same music and you're dancing different choreography to the same music.
Patterson: Like one of my corps spots was completely reversed. I got a little confused one night in performance and finished with a different partner. [laughter] We all just kept going, but we went, "What are you doing?" "I'm gonna go over here." "I'm gonna go over there." "Okay." [laughter]
Mills: How old are you?
Mills: So you've seen Nutcracker about five times?
Mills: So you're a real pro, a Nutcracker pro. Would you say that it wouldn't feel like Christmas if you didn't see Nutcracker?
AC: Well, not exactly, but it wouldn't feel like a regular Christmas. It would feel like I was starting all over again because it's become a tradition that we go every year. It would really affect our Christmas if we didn't go to Nutcracker.
Mills: It would ours, too. We sort of build our year around Nutcracker. A lot of our company can't go home for Christmas because of the performances, so we have our Christmases together sometimes. That's what makes it special for us. What would make Nutcracker really super for you?
AC: I think it's pretty good how it is.
Mills: You don't think it would be better if the Rat King ate Clara?
The Ballet Austin production of The Nutcracker runs Dec. 8-23 at Bass Concert Hall. Call 476-2163 for tickets.
Rosalind Faires is a second-grader in Mrs. Cisneroz's class at St. Ignatius Martyr School.