Weekend Reading: “Dancing in Their Heads,” on THE NUTCRACKER and the performance (and finale) of childhood

By Greg Weatherford.

First published in Richmond, Virginia’s Style Weekly in 2002, when The Nutcracker was due for an overhaul, this article is a glimpse into the constant productions of girlhood and the sometimes reluctant transition to bigger roles.

Overture

“I have a person who doesn’t fit a Confectioner,” announces Susan Collet, wardrobe manager for the Richmond Ballet.

Collet is in the ballet’s basement costume shop, surrounded by sixteen young dancers. Costumes hang from racks along the walls. Three Barbie dolls, two of them dressed as befeathered Vegas showgirls, dangle from the exposed pipes near the ceiling.

“It is a little tight,” says David Thompson, the costume director, bustling over. He points to the girl in question, who is costumed as a confectioner — pretty pink dress, apron, and so on. “Okay. Lift your arms. Put ’em down. Okay. We’re going to have to do another switch.”

And just like that, the girl is banished from the ranks of Confectioners. “Now you’re a Cook!” Collet says. The girl joins the taller group of girls, the Cooks, in their white pants and tall hats. She looks like she’s holding back tears.

“It’s not sad,” Collet tells her, soothingly. “It’s not sad.”

Judy Jacob, artistic associate director for the Richmond Ballet and director of its dance school, is watching from the sidelines. “The Cooks, the Confectioners — they’re all female characters,” she confides. “The little bit taller girls are Cooks, the little bit smaller girls are Confectioners. But sometimes the girls don’t want to be the Cooks because they think they look like boys.

“This will be my eighth year with the Richmond Ballet, and I can count on one hand the number of times a child has burst into tears and dissolved into a puddle when they find out what costume they’re going to wear. But it has happened. I usually tell the Cooks that they get to dress like Courteney Cox in Friends. You know how she’s always wearing her chef’s outfit? That usually makes them feel better.”

There are about 120 children in The Nutcracker every year. Most of them are girls between the ages of ten and thirteen.

These are, to put it gently, not easy years to be a girl. They’re growing, or not, they’re getting gangly or getting bulky, they’re getting figures, or not. They’re on the cusp of everything.

So life lessons can come from anywhere. Sometimes they come from a 122-year-old ballet about a little girl who has a dream.

During The Nutcracker, they learn all kinds of things. Professionalism. Hard work. The power of art and of beauty.

Other things, too.

“When you’re a boy,” explains twelve-year-old Olivia, taking a break from rehearsals, “you don’t have to care as much about your hair. In ‘Mother Ginger and Her Children,’” a scene in The Nutcracker, “if you’re a girl you have to have your hair braided.”

“Last year,” adds one friend, “I remember the braids were, like, pulling my eyebrows back they were so tight.”

The other girls nod agreement. They are silent for a moment.

“Last year we were stuck in traffic before one performance,” one muses. “And we were, like, going a foot a minute? And this was, like, the one time my mom didn’t have her cell phone? I was so worried.”

It is a weekend in November, and these girls, mostly students at the ballet’s school, are at rehearsal. As usual. The Nutcracker’s child dancers start rehearsing six weeks before the adults do. They practice every weekend, all day. When the professional dancers join in, the entire group does a series of full rehearsals before opening night.

Every one of the sixteen girls in this gaggle wants to be Clara, whose dream the ballet depicts.

“To be Clara, you try out for Party Child,” says one girl. “Then they might hold you back to try out for Clara. They’ll say, like, ‘You and you and you, you stay behind for a few minutes. Thank you very much, the rest of you.’”

“Everybody wants to be Clara,” says one girl. “She’s the star.”

“She’s the child star,” corrects another. “She has to be the right size. They have to fit the costume and they have to not be taller than the boy. They have to have a certain look and have a certain way they hold themselves.”

“This year I got to try out for Clara because there was a short prince and I’m short,” says another. “I didn’t get it, though.”

“A girl cried last year during tryouts,” says a girl.

“It’s just a big deal,” says another. They all nod, soberly.

Act One

Be careful when you meddle with success.

True, the Richmond Ballet’s current production [in 2002] of The Nutcracker is twenty years old and is about to be put out to pasture. But that’s not the whole story.

To say The Nutcracker has been good to the Richmond Ballet would be like saying Elvis is sort of famous. It is the linchpin of the company’s budget. It is the only ballet many people ever see, and they return to see it again and again, bringing their children with them, year after.

Copyright Richmond Ballet

Stoner Winslett, the ballet’s artistic director, staged The Nutcracker as the Richmond Ballet’s first professional performance twenty years ago. Winslett choreographed some parts, borrowed choreography for others and arranged the story. She worked in partnership with Charles Caldwell, who designed the sets and costumes. That version, with some minor variations, has been the version Richmond Ballet has presented ever since.

Now Winslett and Caldwell are redoing the production, and hope to present the new version next year [2003], budgets permitting.

Winslett says the new version will goose the tempo in Act II, which takes place in Clara’s dreams. The sword fight will be restaged. And, of course, it will have all-new sets. And all-new costumes.

Winslett’s version differs from some others, which she describes with some distaste as “sort of a psychosexual drama.”

But why change at all?

“Everything has a useful life,” Winslett replies. “The sets and costumes have been around for nineteen years. … Everything has to be replaced sometime.”

In fact, the production won’t really change that much, Winslett says. The storyline will stay the same, Winslett says: “I feel very strongly that The Nutcracker is about a little girl and her dream. … It’s about magic. It’s about a little girl and her very pure, innocent, beautiful, little-girl dreams.”

This distinguishes Winslett’s version from some others, which she describes with some distaste as “sort of a psychosexual drama.”

The most famous of these darker versions is probably Mikhail Baryshnikov’s star turn in the American Ballet Theater’s 1977 version, in which the children’s roles are played by adults. In this version, Clara does some symbolic growing up and is whisked away by Baryshnikov, presumably to discover her womanhood.

Tchaikovsky, by the way, reportedly was disappointed by the version of The Nutcracker he was asked to score.

He preferred the original 1816 story by E. T. A. Hoffman — which features gobs of blood and several grisly deaths — to the cleaned-up later version by Alexandre Dumas that was choreographed by Petipa. But it’s hard to imagine that The Nutcracker would be as successful doing it Tchaikovsky’s way.

The legendary Olga Preobrajenska performs The Nutcracker in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

There are more than 300 professional versions of The Nutcracker playing around the country this year, according to www.nutcrackerballet.net, a website devoted to such things.

“There really is nothing in the symphony or the opera world that comes even close to The Nutcracker in terms of audience appeal or ticket sales,” Winslett says. “Frankly, professional ballet wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for The Nutcracker. … Members of our board will sometimes say, ‘Why can’t we have a Pumpkincracker or an Eastercracker?’”

The company is in the midst of a campaign to raise $1.5 million for the new version of The Nutcracker and for some capital renovations. As part of that campaign, donors may “buy” the new costumes and part of the new sets — a Mouse King crown may be donated for $500, for example, while the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tutu, crown, and pointe shoes will total $3,840. The Magical Christmas Tree for the new production has already been “sold,” for $25,000.

Act Two

In THE NUTCRACKER, as in so much of life, what you can become depends very much on what you look like.

Caroline Gerloff, fifteen years old and a seven-time veteran of The Nutcracker, has learned. “The second year I was a Mouse, I was upset because I was older. But I was small, so I couldn’t play anything else.”

Here’s what she’s talking about: The roles the children can play are determined as much by how big they are as by how good they are. The parts are rigidly preordained. The Mice are played by the smallest children, perhaps six, seven, or eight years old. Then come the Party Children and Mother Ginger’s Children, the Confectioners and Cooks. Then Clara, at least for two girls a year. Then come the more mature roles — the Merlitons, or country maids, and so on.

The roles are so rigid in part because the costumes have to fit the children playing them. The costumes, however, are ten or fifteen or perhaps twenty years old. Many of them date to the Richmond Ballet’s first production of The Nutcracker.

From the Richmond Ballet’s 2010 production.

Back to Caroline. She is fresh-faced and bursting with health. She has just been rehearsing her latest of many roles in the ballet.

“So I was a Mouse for two years. After that I was a Party Child for two years, and one of Mother Ginger’s Children. Then I was Clara, twice. I was about, like, 12.”

(Winslett, later, on Caroline’s work: “A beautiful Clara. Just beautiful.”)

“The first year I really wanted it and it was really fun,” Caroline continues. “It was more of an acting role, and it’s a big role, and everybody wants to be onstage longer. But the second year I was Clara I was really disappointed because I wanted to be a Merliton. I was, like, Oh no!

The Merlitons are played by older, more experienced girls. They get to dance en pointe, on the tips of their toes. “I wanted to move up because it was more hard, it was more technical.”

Caroline got her wish this year. She is a Merliton, and dances en pointe.

Act Three (finale): Growing Up

Each child’s part in THE NUTCRACKER is played by two kids, who alternate the roles or, if necessary, fill in for each other. That’s 120 costumes to be fitted to different children every year.

And because the costumes carry over year after year, each costume’s basic design will let it fit a child of one basic size. To Thompson, the costume director, this means one thing: A nightmare.

“We have — lord, probably close to four hundred costume pieces just for the kids,” he says, sighing. “And we can’t just replace them. Some of these pieces are twenty years old, and you just can’t find fabric that would match anymore …

“The Mice, thank goodness, are one-size-fits-all. But with the other costumes, our biggest issue is height.”

Size is everything. Take the dresses worn by the female Party Children. Pink is the shortest. Fuchsia is slightly larger, followed by burgundy, then green, then turquoise, then blue. Purple goes to the tallest. And so it has been since this version of the ballet began.

Even the stars have to figure out how to deal with this treatment.

“Last year they put me in a boy costume, so I almost started to cry,” says Lily Mochary.

“They put me in a girl costume,” says Molly Cochran.

From the Richmond Ballet’s 2013 production.

Lily and Molly are the Claras of this production. Both are twelve. Lily has curly hair and the slightly distant air of a born star; Molly has porcelain skin and seems more grounded. Lily, by the way, got switched to a girl part last year, something she attributes to her complaints.

Molly has been in the Richmond Ballet school since she was a tiny girl. Lily has been dancing “since I was two” — her mother teaches dance at the Richmond Ballet — and has been in The Nutcracker twice, including this year.

Their coronation as co-Claras, they agree, is the highlight of the their careers so far.

“Everyone wants to be Clara,” Lily explains.

“The whole thing is, like, about her,” Molly says. “It’s her dream. It’s all about her.”

“They posted the cast on a bulletin board downstairs after the tryouts,” Lily says.

Molly: “Two weeks after.”

Lily: “I think it was three.”

Molly: “But it seemed like forever. I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was, like, shaking. I couldn’t talk. I was, like, a retard.”

Lily: “My mom was, like, crying. She pulled me out of dance class to tell me. I think she was even more excited than I was.”

They stop to consider that this is the final production of The Nutcracker, at least in its current version. After this, things will change for them.

“I heard that Clara is going to be Marie in the new version,” Molly says. “The New York City Ballet’s version has a Marie. Not a Clara.”

“I don’t want it to change. It’s just — it’s just — I don’t want it to change,” Molly says. “It’s like my sixth one.”

They ponder the unknowable future.

“But I want to see what it’ll be like next year,” Lily says, brightening.

“Yeah,” Molly says. “Me too.”

— — — -

Greg Weatherford has been a reporter, features writer, and news editor in Virginia for a quarter century, and he is one of Broad Street’s founding advisors. He’s seen some Nutcrackers in his day.