sugar and spice and snow and dew

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This weekend marks my eighteenth year performing in Festival Ballet Providence’s The Nutcracker. That’s right, folks. My Nutcracker career will officially be a legal adult with voting rights by Sunday evening. I am equal parts giddy and flabbergasted. Where the heck did the time go?

The most remarkable thing about this 18-year marker, I think, is the fact that after hundreds of Nutcrackers, there is still something new; This year I will be dancing the role of Snow Queen for the very first time. Snow pas has always been a favorite of mine…the triumphant horns, the imminence of spritely snowflakes, the sweeping lifts. Misha likes to describe the pas de deux like the beginning of a snow storm, little pockets of icy air chasing each other into swirls. A is the wind and I am swept up in him, spreading diamonds over the stage with my crystal wake. Ah, to be Queen of the Snow…

Of course I am also honored and excited to manifest visions of Sugarplums and whirling Dew Drops once again! If you find yourself in Providence this weekend, you can find tickets here.

 

photos by Emma Margulies.

visions

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We are officially in full on Nutcracker mode.  Each day is like a step through the looking glass, diving toes first into Clara’s strange dream.  In so many ways, Nutcracker season really does feel like a dream.  With its soft familiarity, it lures me in deeper, and somehow my presence there feels oddly foreign.  I own the memories, yet they are not solely mine.  The music runs habitually through me, like the soft ticking of an old clock that hung in my childhood home.

This year I am revisiting the enigmatic Sugarplum Fairy.  I love this entire article by dance critique Alastair Macauly, but his eloquent examination of the music was particularly moving:

“Just the first string chord note can raise goose bumps, a sudden announcement of huge drama. The scales that follow, so momentous and solemn, are as breathtaking as the immense central staircase of a baroque palace. There’s a tragic quality here — those descending scales, with their emphatic rhythm, keep being repeated — but there’s also sublimity, transcendence and even, here and there, aspects of consolatory tenderness. How do you realize this extraordinary music in dance?”

I’ve often wondered about the Sugarplum Fairy.  Who is she?  What is she feeling?  Why does she dance this dramatic pas de deux?  Macauly’s assessment seems to ring true.  He claims that the Sugarplum’s aim is not love nor tragedy, as the “sweeping” score implies, but pure beauty:

“The Sugar Plum, assisted by her cavalier, dances in sublimity beyond emotion; her transcendent beauty keeps being renewed by the dance.”

What a rapturous personality to pursue!  Her power throughout and even beyond the dance world is certainly magical in its mystery, and I am honored to investigate.

don’t count your nuts

Like so many, my first audition was for a role in The Nutcracker.  My eighth birthday had fallen in February of the previous winter, and having finally reached the age requirement, I spent six months excitedly preparing.  I was one plan-happy, eager little girl- that is, until the day of the audition.  I freaked and decided the thrill of the big stage would no longer outweigh the terror of the audition process, and I would “not like to do this at all, thank you very much.”

My gem of a mother knew better than to succumb to my nerve-induced sudden change of heart, so she took me to the audition anyway, thank goodness.  As you may have already guessed, it was a total blast and I was elated.  I came home and reenacted the entire audition for my mom, showing her how we’d shuffled across the floor like angels and even temps lie-ed with imaginary dolls like party girls.  I impersonated the artistic director’s Serbian accent as he thanked  me, “Number Seventeeeeen” again and again to make my mother laugh, and we started to imagine what the dressing rooms at PPAC might be like.  I repeated my version of the audition for my (patient) mother every night, while we waited one very long week for the casting to be available.  Seven days later, auditionees were instructed to call the studio to see if we’d made it onto the list (#itwas1999).  I stood by the phone in the kitchen with bated breath while my mom called in.  A strange sort of blue took over her entire face.  She hung up, shook her head, and hugged me.

I remember quite clearly the next two hours of sadness.  I ran straight for my swing set in the backyard, flopped onto my favorite swing with the padded blue chains and white rubber seat, and cried.  I’m sure there was some dramatic singing of a ballad (I think I was pretty into this one at that time), and lots of sad, slow swinging.  My mother followed me out to the swing set and, earning the place she defends to this day as my #1 supporter, cried right along with me.  We hugged and dangled from that swing like a couple of soggy sponges until the familiar high-pitched growl of the landline telephone shrieked from the house.  My mom ran in to put it out of its misery and returned moments later with that golden light back in her face.  “You got in.”

Apparently, half of the cast list had been misplaced.  I’d been “in” all along.  But those crucial two hours when I thought I hadn’t made it taught me a very powerful lesson.  In those few hours, I grew my thick skin.  Though it looked like a pity party (well, it was a pity party), those tears would be the fuel in my fire for a career in the rather merciless world of ballet.  To this day, my mother and I still half-jokingly chant, “Don’t count your nuts before they’re cracked.”

Never take anything for granted.  There is really no such thing as a “given”.  As a reward for sticking it out through this brash life lesson from the leaky eyes of an 8-year-old, I give you this very derpy me, in my first role with a professional ballet company:

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whirlwind

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in a whirl of tulle

and white lights

and lace

rosin’d pointes rock away

sticky grid lock

in their place12370988_10102539865236501_2810790328239385870_o

parties move on

from Silberhaus to 

my own

a growing tree stacks its dust

where festive bulbs

once shone

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flower petals brown

in dark skips where

they lie

whispering of stale sweets

and waltzes 

gone by

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gauzy ghosts of dancers

now wisp in 

their place

flooding the empty theater

with a harrowed

hallow grace

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final bits of chalky snow

flake away and off

the stage

a calendar completely cracked

it must be time to turn

the page…

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creepy poetry by a sleepy me, photos of FBP dancers by the talented Jacob Hoover.

for more from Mr. Hoover and his ultra cool camera, head on over here.

discovering dance

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When I was two, my big sister’s girl scout troop attended Festival Ballet Providence’s Discover Dance performance of The Nutcracker, part of a program wherein schools, church groups, senior citizens and other small communities that may not otherwise have the opportunity are invited to view a daytime showing for a highly reduced rate.  Since my mother was wildly active in all things field trip, volunteer, organization and arts, and I was just a wee little Keeks, I tagged along for the day.

Now, just to clarify, when I say my mother was(is) wildly involved in the lives of her children, I mean she was not just on the PTO- no- she ran the PTO.  She not only attended every academic ceremony and school function, but would most often arrive several hours early to help plan.  Perhaps best of all, though, was the special tradition my mom established at my old elementary school, a brainchild of hers aptly called Creative Awareness.  A week-long celebration of the arts, my mom’s Creative Awareness embraced the unabashed creativity of the young, speckling the halls of Aitken School with colorful student artwork and rogue 5th graders flute, trumpet, and clarinet-ing their tiny, expressive hearts out.  This art appreciation week culminated in an elegant evening talent show, featuring students framed in decor so classy it caused audience members to question their whereabouts and out-of-districters to purchase new properties (probably).

It comes as no surprise, then, that my mother- girl scout troop leader and overall art enthusiast- would orchestrate a trip to the ballet.  At the ripe age of 24 months, I had been exposed to an impressive repertoire of live theater (pretty sure I saw Into The Woods from inside the womb), heck, my mom even co-created and directed a children’s theater group which I acted in for the first twelve years of my life!  But this Nutcracker thing- this ethereal, floating, wordless bit of magic- this was my first experience with real ballet.

According to my mother, I sat on the edge of my velvet-wrapped seat for the duration of the 2 hour ballet, eyes glowing.  When the curtain finally dropped, so did my jaw.  In her telling of this particular story, my next move was to dismount from my perch, point up to the stage, and squeak out, with the utmost assuredness, “Mommy, I am going to do that one day.” (It should be noted that my first word was a full sentence. #grammarpolice)

Twenty years later, that know-it-all oddly accurate little girl has just fulfilled a pretty incredible dream.  As my pointes brushed the hard stage of PPAC Friday morning and the child-dense house applauded my (rather shakey) double pirouette approximately 30 seconds into the grand pas de deux, two-year-old me craned her neck up.  Little Kirsten smiled her smile across my face, bearing her teeth through since-painted lips.  She leapt with abandon and reached her gaze up to the highest balcony, desperate to absorb every bit of this antipodal view before Tchaikovsky’s final horn silenced.

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It’s difficult to express my feelings about FBP’s Discover Dance program.  But doesn’t that tend to be the case when such unselfish things so directly effect your own life in a way that feels self indulgent?  If from my performance last week, even just one child drew a fraction of the inspiration that I did in watching it all those years ago, my heart will surely be full for the next twenty.

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one final push

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My feet are currently submerged in a bucket of ice, there are toe pads soaking in my bathroom sink and I have 3 different doctor’s appointments today.  Nutcracker season has ARRIVED and it is making its presence known.

In a small company (we’re all of 25 dancers total- including trainees & apprentices) each one of us plays a crucial role (no pun intended) in getting our Nutcracker to the stage.  In some shows, all I have to focus on is dancing Sugarplum, but in another I’ll be hosting the season’s greatest Christmas party as Clara’s mother, ushering our little heroine and her prince into the Land of Sweets as a Lead Snowflake, and finishing the evening off with all of the sass as a chocolate-charged Spanish dancer.  Another set of shows have me maintaining the intricate lines and formations that create a storm on stage in the Snowflake Corps (one of ballet’s most important and difficult aspects!) and putting my tilted cheek and most turned out foot forward as a sweet- yet technically proficient- Marzipan dancer.

Besides a few quick changes in which a great deal of fake curls are replaced with a silvery sparkling tiara to the muted intercom version of an epic battle, the performances themselves are relatively manageable.  By the time we reach the theater, my stamina is such that, in fact, performing these roles does not cause much stress.  The rehearsal process, however, is vastly different…

Typically, during the last 2 weeks leading up to a show, rehearsals tend to go as follows: run the piece, go through and adjust all corrections, and run the piece again.  This process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the length of the piece.  It’s designed to make completely sure that our strength and endurance are high enough to perform at our best with two shows a day at PPAC.  It’s effective. It’s strenuous.  Okay, it’s brutal.  But it works, and it makes a (60 degree?!) Sunday in December spent almost entirely indoors completely guilt-free.

 

If you’re in the area, grab a ticket and come experience the marathon magic.

PS- My aforementioned crazy costume changes receive some videographic kin in Boston Ballet’s awesome time-lapse compilation of Second Soloist Paul Craig’s many different Nutcracker roles here.

a very nutty friday

With two shows in Winchester and another week of rehearsals under my belt, it’s safe to say I am officially in full on Nutcracking mode.  It only seemed appropriate to have this week’s links reflect my current nutty state of mind…

Secrets behind the magic of The Nutcracker from the Royal Opera House.  (spoiler alert)

“The greatest mysteries, however, remain in the music we already know. What does the Sugar Plum’s adagio express? We can say it’s about the sublimity of a perfect being; we can say its huge, cascading scales are liturgical, Tchaikovsky’s requiem for his beloved sister (who died while he was preparing the ballet); it contains both glory and tragedy.” -New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macauly, on the mystery and reward of his annual Nutcracker marathons.  (reminds me of the Nutcracker mini-marathons my mom and I used to do)

Meet the Sugarplums of Boston (Hi Ashley!)

Festival Ballet’s Adaptive Dance program comes to the Nutcracker stage. (heartwarming)

Dew Drop is my favorite part of Balanchine’s Nutcracker. (so dynamic)

A while back my mom and I went on a little date to see the Bolshoi Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet– in a movie theater a few miles away from Providence.  Though an entirely different experience from that of attending a live performance, seeing ballet on the big screen was stunning in its own way, and the behind-the-scenes footage and commentary were so cool.  Now is your chance to see what I mean- this weekend The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker will be screening at a view different theaters around the country. (check out the RI schedule here!)

And while you’re at it, check out some of The Royal Ballet’s rehearsal shots from their time in the studio preparing The Nutcracker. (lovely)

For tickets to FBP’s Nutcracker at PPAC next weekend. (shop local)