By Terry Trucco
Whether itís the thrilling music, the dancing candy canes or the antics of the mysterious Herr Drosselmeier, The Nutcracker makes a big impression the first time most people see it. We asked seven members of the City Ballet Company to recall their favorite Nutcracker firsts ó first viewings, first performances and first heart-stop moments.
Jennie Somogyi, Principal Dancer
I was a little bit in shock when I was chosen for the part of Marie in New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was my first year at the School of American Ballet [SAB, the official school of NYCB], and I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. I had seen NYCB’s Nutcracker when I was around five years old, and though the family friends who brought me said I danced all the way back to the car, I don’t remember much about it.
The first night I performed I was fine. It felt very personal, just me and the people onstage. Then the reviews were in the paper, and people kept coming up to me saying it was great. I realized there were all these other things that went along with it besides just performing, and I was absolutely petrified for my second show. At the beginning Marie and Fritz sit between the curtain and two scrims. I remember sitting there in the dark thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t do this!’ Then the curtain went up, and everything was fine.
My favorite part was when Marie falls asleep on the bed in Act I. You’re by yourself out there, and the music is beautiful. I remember that being my ‘aaaah!’ moment every show. I also loved the second act, watching the dancers onstage and seeing what they were do- ing in the wings before they entered. When I joined the Company, I remember feeling really comfortable the first time I danced in The Nutcracker. It felt like home.
Cameron Dieck, Corps de Ballet
I was in the Mother Ginger scene in a production of The Nutcracker at SuNY Purchase with my sister when I was seven. We were the children under her skirt, but we were dressed like little Santa Clauses. For the climax of the performance we all ran to the front of the stage and screamed ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ I have a vague memory of running up a little bit early because I was so excited.
I went to SAB for ten years, and I really wanted to be in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, but I was always too tall. When I got into the Company, dancing in The Nutcracker was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. The first time I did the party scene and I was onstage with all the SAB kids, I thought ‘I’m finally performing The Nutcracker after all these years!’
I’ve been Mother Ginger for two years, and the first time was terrifying. I remember when I was under that skirt in Purchase, we had to be careful to not get stepped on by the stilts. This was the reverse. I’m wearing an 80 pound dress and stilts attached with duct tape, and all I can think is I don’t want to be the person who falls, injuring the kids, forcing the curtain to come down mid-show. But you get used to it, and now I’m fine.
Jenelle Manzi, Corps de Ballet
When I was five my grandmother and my mom took me into New York, and I saw George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker for the first time with Darci Kistler dancing the role of the Sugarplum Fairy. I fell in love. She became my idol. Shortly after the performance I sent her a postcard, and she wrote back. I have this postcard from Darci telling me to always follow my dreams. I had always loved putting on a tutu and dancing around the house, but being in the theater and seeing such an incredible performance brought all my little fantasies into reality. It changed everything for me.
I got into SAB, and my first role in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was as a Polichinelle when I was 11. I remember watching the corps de ballet members in their costumes, especially the Flowers. I was fascinated by everything they did, and I knew I wanted my life to be here. When I got into the Company, Snow was he very first role I danced. It’s still my absolute favorite section. It brings you into another world. The snow, the lighting, everyone in the same costume—there’s no story. It’s just you and the other dancers creating patterns. I never get tired of dancing in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Darci’s advice worked.
Savannah Lowery, Soloist
The first time I danced in The Nutcracker was with a production in St. Petersburg, Florida put together by Christopher Fleming [a former NYCB Dancer]. I was 13, which is older than most kids start out. But I was also a gymnast, and the state competitions were always in December. So I never got to audition for The Nutcracker until I grew too tall for gymnastics and had to quit.
I was an angel, a flower, a snowflake and one of Clara’s friends— all in one show! When you’re that young, you don’t get tired. If they told me I was doing all that now I’d say ‘You’re out of your mind!’ I loved the rehearsals. We would dance all day Saturday and all day Sunday leading up to the shows. I had only been in recitals up until that point, and I loved being part of a big production where adults danced too. The funny part is that Daniel Ulbricht [current NYCB Principal] and I were both in that production of The Nutcracker in Florida. We grew up together and went to the same ballet school.
He was in the party scene and the second act, so we were onstage together in my first Nutcracker, which is pretty great.
Chase Finlay, Soloist
I know it’s a cliché, but seeing The Nutcracker was actually the reason why I started ballet. I was into sports when I was little. But my sister was a dancer, so I was around a ballet studio a lot. It wasn’t until I saw The Nutcracker that ballet really caught my interest. The second act comes around, and the Chinese character comes out of the box and starts doing these split jumps and huge tricks. I was eight years old, and I sat up and looked at my mom and said ‘I have to do this.’ I started lessons a few months later.
I danced Cavalier for the first time two years ago. I felt honored, but it was very nerve-wracking. I’d watched Damian Woetzel, Jock Soto, and all the famous ballet dancers who I had looked up to as a kid perform the role, and I had this realization that I was finally doing the part I’d been hoping to do my whole life. It’s one of those iconic roles for the male. It’s just you and your Sugarplum Fairy. You’re out there in the white tights. There’s no escaping. It’s very bare. And in a way you can almost feel the presence of Balanchine.
Tiler Peck, Principal Dancer
I was in The Music Man [on Broadway] when I was 11 and I came with my mom to see NYCB’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. I saw Darci Kistler and Jock Soto as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I turned to my mom and said, ‘I’m going to dance on that stage some day.’ I don’t think it was until that moment that I thought I wanted ballet to be my path.
The first time I danced Sugarplum Fairy I found out about it at the last moment. I was supposed to make my debut the follow- ing day with Adrian Danchig-Waring [current NYCB Soloist]. We had just done the final complete rehearsal, onstage in costume. It went really well, but we finished really late, just around curtain time. Just as we finished Peter’s [NYCB Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins] assistant came in and whispered in his ear. Peter said, ‘How would you feel about making your debut a night early with Robbie [current NYCB Principal, Robert Fairchild]?’ I didn’t even have pointe shoes ready, so I sewed the ribbons on one shoe and my friend did the other. I put my make-up on quickly and did the show. I will never forget it. everything that I imagined could go wrong did. At the end I remember tearing up. I was mortified. I thought, how can I go out and do it again tomorrow? But the next day everything went fine. And I can laugh about it now.
Robert Fairchild, Principal Dancer
The first time I did The Nutcracker I was nine, and I was Fritz in a Ballet West production in Salt Lake City, utah. And Marie, my sister in the show, was played by my sister in real life [NYCB Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild]. It was mainly acting, and the woman who taught us made acting the most fun thing to do. She told us to go home and figure out what our characters were thinking or trying to say. It was a really unique type of artistry. That kind of thing stays with you.
I did Candy Cane for the first time last year. It’s something I had always wanted to do, but I was never cast. eventually when I first did the role it was really stressful, but I loved it. The hard part for me is to try to squeeze myself through the hoop when I do the jumps. I’m a big guy. It’s hard on the body, but I’m still young. The first night I think I closed my eyes when I did the last jump, which is two jumps worth. I don’t even remember it. I’ve always thought Candy Cane was so cool. The audience loves it; it’s great music; and you get to dance with those little kids, who are getting their first experience out there. It’s exciting.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.
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