With 24 performances throughout December and unique casting combinations for each, the cast list for The Nutcracker is something of a Rubik’s Cube. How does one ballerina juggle 14 roles across 24 performances of The Nutcracker? Corps de ballet dancer Jessica McCann lets us in on her secrets to success.
First, name all 14 roles for us.
Arabian, Chinese, Columbina doll, Mrs. Kaufmann, Flowers, Aunt Gertrude, Grandmother, Marie, Snow Queen, Snow corps de ballet, Shepherdess, Spanish lead, Spanish side, Mrs. Stahlbaum.
What’s it like to learn and dance 14 roles? How do you keep it straight?!
“It’s kind of crazy isn’t it?! Each year, we slowly learn and perform more roles and are given more opportunities. So the number of roles just continues to increase as your years in the company progress. It’s exciting adding new roles and perfecting older ones. Before every show I really focus down on what I’m doing in this show and try not to worry about anything else. Getting into character really helps me with that because it’s the same music, but depending on your role that night…your timing is different or you’re in charge of something different. It’s always important to try things in a costume before your show, especially when we all do so many different roles. It’s a lot!”
Do you have a favorite role or even a top three? What makes each one special?
“I might have to say, Marie, Snow Queen, and Arabian…Aunties from the party scene come very close though! (They are so funny…If you ever seen me perform it, you’ll probably notice how much fun I’m having!) Marie is, of course, my top pick. I really enjoy playing a character that drives the story. She is so full of life and wonder; you get to play with a lot of different acting while being Marie, including young love. Snow Queen and Arabian are my second and third picks. Being queen of the land of snow is probably my inner child’s dream coming true! The music is powerful and exciting. She is powerful but kind and understanding, and her entrance is one of my favorite things. A huge book opens up and the Snow King and Queen emerge through it. Arabian is the newest role for me…It’s challenging and rewarding, and I love the mysterious quality to the movement.”
How do you keep your energy up throughout the run?
“The whole company is constantly picking each other up – helping and encouraging each other, watching each other in the wings, constantly joking around and reminding each other to just have fun! It’s a long month, but we get through together.
I take a lot of vitamins…amino acids and omega-3 & 6. Lots of water…protein….smoothies, antioxidants and eggs and homemade protein bars with lots of different nuts and seeds as well as yogurt and homemade granola. I also tend to try and lay down and shut my eyes in between performances if time allows. I need to rest my mind and prepare and recharge for the next show filled with different roles then the shows previous. How we treat our bodies and minds when we are so busy pretty much makes or breaks you. You need to stay strong and healthy to make it through! We always have a dinner waiting for us in the crockpot on those nights when we come home at 11 p.m. as well. No matter how tired you are you need a good dinner too.”
What’s your favorite costume of the 14 you wear?
“This is hard… last season I had my Snow Queen premiere and I might have to say that one is my favorite. The Snow Scene has been my favorite scene in The Nutcracker since I started dance at 4 years old. The tutu and tiara are just gorgeous and I feel like a true ballerina when I’m in it.”
Do you prep a different pair of pointe shoes for each role?
“Definitely yes! (Dancing in the) Snow Scene corps de ballet always gets my deadest of dead shoes. It’s a lot of jumping and running, so soft is okay. I wear a brand-new pair when I do Marie, and it’s perfect. You need them harder in the beginning and it’s nice as they soften during the show, because in Act 2 there is much more jumping. If those shoes are still good I might wear them later for a Chinese show or Spanish lead show. Chinese, Shepherdess and Snow Queen need really nice turning shoes so they can’t be too dead, but not brand new. Comfortable. I might even transition my Marie shoes to my Snow Queen shoes. It totally depends on the role, the choreography, and what each individual dancer likes. I’m definitely walking around with a ton of different pointe shoes though, always trying to find the perfect pair for the roles I’m doing that day.”
What does The Nutcracker season mean to you?
“It’s all about family and tradition isn’t it? It’s something that touches young kids and they never forget it. My mother never forgot when she first saw it, and I’ll never forget when I first saw it. It’s a famous story everyone knows one way or another, and it’s a beautiful tradition that families make. I love being a part of so many families’ traditions each year.”
See all of these characters come to life in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker, on stage through Dec. 27, at the Benedum Center. Get your seats here.