By PBT Principal Alexandra Kochis
The holidays are a time of ritual and tradition for all of us and, as dancers, performing The Nutcracker is not an exception to that rule but rather a personification of it, I would say.
It’s an old friend that has known you since forever and whom you visit every year. It’s that favorite ornament that elicits a knowing smile as you carefully unwrap it from its yearly swaddling and find the perfect bough on which to display it. It’s the cookies that you only make on Christmas Eve and that always reminds you of your Grandmother and how she taught you to carefully and patiently mix the dough. Why do these things give us pleasure? As people, I think we find comfort in the familiar and pleasant corners of our memory. Those revisited scenes seem to withstand the relentless passage of time and gives us a small sense of permanence in this whirlwind of an existence. And, just as a favorite recipe or tradition spurs one to look back over the different paths they’ve traveled in life and the people who have touched them along the way, so too does the annual run of The Nutcracker give us dancers the chance to look back over the journey we’ve taken, through the lens of the different roles we have performed and all those who have coached us in those roles over the years.
I remember my very first role in any Nutcracker was as a Polichinell in what was, actually, a touring version of PBT’s Nutcracker (talk about a small world!) in Methuen, MA. We rehearsed for months before the company ever arrived in town, making sure that we knew our choreography and music backwards and forwards – all in the hopes that, when the dancers did arrive, we wouldn’t be thrown off by the addition of a male dancer with a giant skirt and stilts sidestepping his way onto stage above us. I think that was my first introduction into what “being professional” about something was all about. I remember the first time I got to dance the role of Marie (or Clara in that particular production) and how my teacher was adamant that I not make the choreography “matter of fact.” He wanted each action to be as if it was happening for the first time – bubbling up out of my being, flooding over the footlights and seeping into each audience member’s imagination.
That is something I still think about with each and every performance. And I remember the first time I got to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I tried to channel different favorite dancers whom I had had the privilege to watch from the wings in the past in each different section of the variation – a flick of the wrist that set off the accents in the music here and a glimpse of a mischievous smile that always made me think, “I wonder what she’s thinking about,” there. And so their performances live on in my performances.
There is also a certain bitter-sweetness to Nutcracker time for dancers. It is the time of year when I feel we can get the most comfortable being onstage, as we have around 25 shows over the course of a month in which to hone our craft and flesh out our characters. But it is also an incredibly physically demanding time that can sometimes leave us sick and exhausted. It is a time of year when, like everyone, we enjoy celebrating with friends and family but also the time of year when we are the busiest, which can sometimes make it impossible to be with the ones you love. But, despite all the trials and tribulations, for me there is something incredibly special about being able to relive the most magical night in a child’s year over and over again. Remember that Christmas Eve feeling? Comfortably snuggled under your covers, belly full of your favorite foods and your loved ones filling the rooms just down the hall. That tingling feeling of impatience, contentment and expectation all at once. Wanting the morning to come but wanting that moment to last forever. Perhaps it’s a fountain of youth in a way – having to remember and channel that excitement and belief keeps you young at heart.
But I think, as a performer, one of my favorite times being in the theater with The Nutcracker are those few dark hours in between a matinee and an evening performance when everyone else is off grabbing a bite to eat or a quick nap or out shopping for that last-minute gift and I get the stage to myself for a solitary warmup. There is no music and I’m alone in this immense, cavernous space that, just an hour ago, was alive and teeming with lights and people and applause. There is a meditation and reverence to it, a midnight vespers of sorts, that cleanses and renews and reminds me of how I have come to be there.