“It’s not like a hoedown; c’mon, girls, it’s the ballet!”
Two weeks before the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker was set to open, Garielle Whittle, the ballet mistress who teaches all the children’s roles, was still drilling the basics. “None of this—” Ms. Whittle mimed a square dance, dipping her shoulder down and doing a skip. “It’s this—” She snapped up her chin, pinned back her shoulders and looked in the mirror to see if the girls—16 of them, looking like baby flamingoes in their pink tights—were watching. Some were; others giggled by a barre. “All right, take five.” Ms. Whittle gave up, taking a sip from a Diet Pepsi. “And be back quick.”
It is not unusual for Ms. Whittle, a former principal with the City Ballet who’s been in charge of the children’s scenes for 26 years, to feel a bit tense this time of year. After all, The Nutcracker is the company’s cash cow, bringing in nearly 40 percent of its ticket sale revenue while taking up nearly 30 percent of its New York performances each year. Plus, it is perhaps the best-known work of the company’s founder, George Balanchine, who choreographed the production 55 years ago, and of the composer, Peter Tchaikovsky.
To be sure, balletomanes have long held The Nutcracker at arm’s length, viewing it more as spectacle than dance; like the Rockettes or roasting chestnuts, it’s loved as much for the seasonal spirit it invokes as the thing it is itself. But still, its enchantments are hard to resist. How can you not fall for little Marie, those toy soldiers, the flowers, the Sugarplum Fairy, the whirling Candy Canes, that 40-foot tree!
Yet the magic of the production belies a fact so obvious to all those involved that they barely seem to acknowledge it: This is incredibly hard work. For nearly two months, every kid in the show, just over a hundred of them, most between the ages of 7 and 12, show up to about three extra rehearsals a week. That’s a little under twice the normal amount of class time—on average, 10 hours a week, in five nights—that they put in at the School of American Ballet, where all the performers come from.
Parents have to rearrange their schedules; manage mini-triumphs and heartbreaks as Ms. Whittle announces the star roles; and then deal with grade-school teachers miffed that Little Johnnie keeps getting yanked out of class. If the children themselves show little worry, as if the process is more like Land of the Sweets than the dour doings at the Stahlbaum home, parents confess that the process can rattle their nerves.
“Oh my God, this is going to be a disaster,” Jeff Alexander remembers worrying the first night his son, Jonathan, appeared in The Nutcracker three years ago. “I thought my son was going to be the first one to lose the battle scene.” (Which would be impossible.) Mr. Alexander, who runs a chocolate company, said he hadn’t even seen The Nutcracker until his son was cast in a star role in 2006. “I remember calling my wife and telling her that Jonathan was going to be Fritz”—the bratty brother of Marie—“and she said to me, ‘That’s great, but what’s a fritz?’” (This year Jonathan is the Prince.)
THE NUTCRACKER HAS about 50 children’s roles, with two separate casts, but only a handful of them have significant dancing sequences—Marie, the Prince, the Polichinelles, the Candy Canes, among a few others. The rest of the scenes—the tug of war in Act I, for instance, the haloed angels that open Act II—may be rehearsed down to the angle of a chin, but still require less technical skill.
Most the parts are determined by whether a costume fits—if it fits, you’re it. But most kids yearn for the few choice roles. “I was dying to get it,” said Maria Gorokhov, a brown-haired 11-year-old who’ll be one Marie this year. “When I was the bunny”—a less prominent role that she played in her first Nutcracker—“I was always watching Margot,” she said, referring to Margot Pitts, a 2006 Marie.
Lance Chantiles-Wertz, a stick-thin 11-year-old with a mop of curly blond hair, will be a Prince this year, for the second time. He auditioned for the School of American Ballet after his mother, herself a former dancer, read about the school in The Times and encouraged him to audition. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll try this.’ I thought I might like it,” he said. But ever since hearing a girl read the Nutcracker story in his kindergarten class, he said, he wanted to be in the show. When Ms. Whittle announced he would be a Prince last year, “I was like—” he paused, then dropped his jaw in mock amazement, revealing little spaces between his teeth. “Everyone wants to play Marie,” said Ms. Whittle, “but I pretty much know who’s going to be it beforehand.” She works with the children year-round as an instructor at the school, keeping an eye out for who’ll be best for each role.
“I didn’t really get what the whole gist of it was about,” said Jennie Somogyi, 32, a principal in City Ballet who played Marie first in 1986 and will be the Sugarplum Fairy this year, her 12th year in the role.
One day each October, all 100 or so children sit in the studio where Ms. Whittle calls out each role—the mice, the soldier, the snowflakes and so on—saving the star roles for last. Meanwhile, parents wait in their cars or in the “kiss-and-cry room,” as Paulette Brooks, mother of Ty Brooks, who danced as the prince 10 years ago, called the lobby on the school’s fifth floor. (Ty Brooks is now a dancer wih the Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.)
The children say they get butterflies in their stomachs the day the casts are announced. But rarely does anyone actually cry. “They’re all special in their own way,” said Betsy Levine, 12, of all the various roles. She and her twin sister, Caryn, will be Polichinelles when the ballet opens Nov. 27, though performing this year means they had to reschedule their bat mitzvahs. “You learn to balance it all,” said Caryn, smiling shyly through braces.
If the children are remarkably composed, the parents can be another story. After Callie Reiff, a 10-year-old with blond hair and crystal blue eyes, got the role of Marie two years ago, she walked out of the studio and called her mom, who was waiting in her car near the school, on 65th and Amsterdam.
“I said ‘I’m Marie,’ and she didn’t believe me. I kept saying it and she didn’t get it, and then her friend got on the phone”—another Nutcracker parent, who was waiting in the kiss-and-cry room—“and said to her, ‘Come up, the press is here, they’re waiting to talk to you.’ Then, when she finally came up, she had tears in her eyes.”
The School of American Ballet accepted 32 percent of the 553 children between the ages of 6 and 10 who applied last year. “We’re really just looking at their bodies,” said Ms. Whittle. “Some of them come in bathing suits.”
Said Ms. Brooks: “You better get used to it, because (a), if you want to get into SAB, and (b), if you want them to get into the company, that’s how it is. You’re talking about dance here.”