Here’s to Twenty Years of Nutcracker at Miami City Ballet
Post by Principal Dancer Deanna Seay
It is that time of year again. Nutcracker is making its way into the halls of MCB as familiar strains of holiday music waft through the studios. Dancers learn new parts and brush off old ones, and children brim with excitement at the prospect of being on stage with the Sugar Plum Fairy. For most of us, Nutcracker is something we have been part of, one way or another, since childhood, and while the performances can seem endless, stories of Nutcracker are something that all dancers have in common.
Twenty years ago, Miami City Ballet opened its first Nutcracker season with about forty performances throughout South Florida. We had sold out standing ovations every night in every venue. The glowing reviews heralded the arrival of a new South Florida tradition. There were galas and celebrations. We toured through South Florida, beginning with endless hours of tech rehearsals and six performances in Naples, Florida during the week around Thanksgiving. From there we traveled to Clearwater for eight performances before returning to perform fifteen shows at Dade County Auditorium in Miami. The run finished with about ten particularly challenging performances at Bailey Concert Hall. Not only did these shows fall at the end of an exhausting run, but the dimensions of the stage required the large pieces of scenery to be set closer together that usual, subtracting from the performing area.
Through the years Nutcracker has continued to return to MCB, every year bringing a new set of challenges and surprises. Nutcracker mishaps are many, and often the best part of the story. More than once, overly -excited soldiers in the Battle Scene have left puddles on stage to be avoided by the Snowflakes. Headpieces and other costume parts fall off on a regular basis, it seems, leaving the dancers on stage with the challenge of surreptitiously removing the obstacle from the dancing space. Occasionally, other things fall onto the stage as well; it is not unusual for the snowflakes to hear items landing with a thud during the snow scene. Then, there was the year that lighting gels over the stage caught on fire and began to rain down during Waltz of the Flowers, with Sally Ann Isaacks as the Dewdrop. None of us who were present the first year will ever forget the dress rehearsal during which we heard Edward yell out, “Crista!!,” as he watched his young daughter, who was rehearsing the role of Marie, inadvertently run off the edge of the dark stage and fall into the orchestra pit.
Her fall was broken by a tympani drum, and after a few frighteningly silent moments her small voice called out, “Daddy, I’m ok.” Years later, during a performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, screams and shouts of, “Stop!” were once again heard from the audience. A fight between patrons had broken out, with two men rolling through the aisle. The newspaper later reported that one of the men had been talking and would not be quiet when asked. Despite the commotion, the dancers continued on, never once missing a step.
Not everything that goes on during a Nutcracker performance is visible to the audience. We have many of our own games that we play, some occurring on stage during performances. The ladies who dance in the Snow scene, many of whom will dance every single performance, are masters at creating storylines that help motivate them to perform the demanding snow choreography day after day with narratives that range from captive ice princesses to imaginary ice- skating competitions. In the past, a version of tag has been played during party scene. Originally intended as an exercise to create movement around the stage, one of the adult party scene guests attempts to tag another by placing an inconspicuous clip onto someone’s costume. Offstage, there is the yearly Secret Santa game.
More than just a gift giving occasion, Secret Santa turns into a company event no matter who is playing. It is impossible not to enjoy the antics as people are forced to earn their gifts by singing Christmas carols before company class, going on scavenger hunts around the theaters, or revealing some of their most embarrassing moments to the entire cast.
The first year in Nutcracker is always the hardest. And so it was for me that first year, dancing every performance of snow and flower corps in that first year, and also appearing as a parent in the party scene each show. My biggest fear was that I would not make it back to the stage in time for Snow. It was not easy to get out of that party scene costume, with its layers of petticoats, gloves, capes, etc. I remember racing from the stage to my dressing room to change my costume, and being in the corps, it seemed that our dressing room was the farthest from the stage. Off with one costume, and into the next, ripping out one headpiece and jabbing pins into my hair to secure the next, grabbing pointe shoes and shoving my feet into them. But as the years went by, Nutcracker seemed to become a little easier. By the second year, I shared a party scene spot, so I didn’t have to race every show to make the costume change. Seniority eventually grants a dancer an alternate for her snow and flower corps spots, and the first time I did not appear in the Snow Scene felt like a milestone. As time went by, I began to dance a variety of roles, including the Dewdrop and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I danced my first Sugar Plum Fairy fifteen years ago at the Broward School matinee. Being young and ambitious as I first learned the role, I worked to make the Sugar Plum Fairy everything I thought she should be, and ended up learning, over the years, that she is the product of so much more. There is no question that she epitomizes beauty, femininity and magic, and that under her reign, there can be nothing wrong in the world as she commands her kingdom with a swirl of her wand, but it is the grace, humility and patience learned from the early years in the corps that become prerequisites for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
So, after a few more shows, this Nutcracker season shall also pass. We will all breathe a collective sigh of relief as we scurry our separate directions for Christmas. And yet, it is another set of stories to compile, another chapter in our ongoing Nutcracker history.
The wonderful thing about Nutcracker is that it keeps coming back.
Check out Patricia Delgado’s interview with Deanna during Naples Nutcracker.