The first time Ashley Phan saw “The Nutcracker” ballet, it was in Seattle. Like many little girls, she saw the glorious costumes and magical Sendak-designed set of the Pacific Northwest Ballet production, and was hooked.
“It made me want to do it too,” says Phan. She began lessons with Tacoma City Ballet and danced in her first “Nutcracker” at age 9 as a Bon-Bon – the tiniest role of the candies who burst on stage from underneath Mother Ginger’s dress.
This year, she’s 17 and dancing a principal role: the dance of the Flutes.
You can be fairly sure that most of the Claras, Sugar Plum Fairies and even Nutcrackers you see in the South Sound’s many “Nutcracker” performances this year will have once been small children in the audience, enthralled by their first ballet.
Which is one reason that the ballet is so popular, and such a money-maker for local companies every year: Children love it.
Not that adults don’t love it as well, of course. The famous Russian ballet, first choreographed in 1892 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s now-beloved score, has everything most people love about ballet: terrific music, a good storyline (Clara is given a Nutcracker doll for Christmas; it breaks but magically transforms into a prince in her dream, taking her away to a Land of Sweets), plenty of colorful characters and costumes, brilliant dancing and a cheerful holiday theme. But it also is a ballet you can be pretty sure your kids will adore – partly because of its many roles for children.
“Children love ‘The Nutcracker,’ whether dancing or watching or having a friend in it,” says Jo Emery, director of the Tacoma Performing Dance Co. Emery’s “Nutcracker” has for 25 years drawn on students from her dance school and featured Emery’s own choreography.
The ballet is the high point of the year for dancers, says Emery: “They worry about when they won’t be able to do it anymore.”
Phan and her TCB colleague Jennifer Rudsit aren’t in that position yet. Like Phan, Rudsit was inspired to dance by seeing a “Nutcracker,” joining TCB when she was 6, and beginning as a Bon-Bon. Year after year she, like Phan and many other young dancers, moved up the ranks through party girls, soldiers (she was too tall to be a mouse, she says), the corps of fairies, snowflakes and Arabian dancers, even dancing Clara one year, in the Pantages production that features the original Russian choreography and the Northwest Sinfonietta orchestra.
Now 17, Rudsit is dancing the principal Spanish role, with all its wrist flourishes and pirouettes.
“When I first danced in ‘The Nutcracker,’ I was very, very excited to be on a real stage,” recalls Phan. “As a Bon-Bon, your dressing room is right behind the orchestra, so you see all the instruments.”
“There were so many people in the audience,” adds Rudsit. “And in the wings we’d get to watch the Flutes dance. It looked so cool – they were so pretty.”
The story is the same with other local productions, wherever they’re held and whatever version they create of the old story. At Washington Contemporary Ballet, whole families get involved, with adults dancing in the party scene and children like Brenna Smelt and Nathan Cook moving up from being tiny 5-year-olds to dancing Clara and the Prince. Smelt, in fact, was inspired to be in the “Nutcracker” after seeing her mom, Holly, dance in it.
The ballet is definitely an inspiration to potential dancers, says Emery, who says she gets new students all the time fresh from seeing her “Nutcracker,” especially if they have friends in it.
“It’s a magical experience for all involved,” Rudsit says. “You get to become a character, and the audience gets wrapped up in the story. And you know a little girl might be watching and want to dance – it might change someone’s life.”