Size is an issue. Ordinarily, the children picked for the production from the company-affiliated School of American Ballet top out at around 5 feet 1 inches tall. What will it look like when a giant Mouse faces off with a Soldier who’s 5 feet 7? (Hopefully still hilarious.) For Dena Abergel, City Ballet’s children’s repertory director, the height requirement can be a source of anguish.
“The heartbreaking part for me is always when I have to reject an 11 year old who’s 5 feet 4 because there’s no costume that’s going to fit,” she said. “A wonderful thing was that I didn’t reject anyone from S.A.B. Everyone who came to the casting day was cast — everyone. People who were taller than me were cast.” (Abergel is just under 5 feet 7.)
And then there is the age factor. Noah Schindler, 13, thought his “Nutcracker” days were over, but this season he will return to the party scene. “Even though I’ve done this part and I remember a lot of it, I’m taking notes on every scene,” he said. “I’m just, like, trying to live it all because this is probably my last time, and I want to savor it all.”
This year’s “Nutcracker” may not look tremendously different to the casual viewer, but it will be different. In order to stay as safe as possible while having the show go on, the company — and the Balanchine Trust — had to bend the rules.
Mirra Andersen, from Waunakee, Wis., is both tall (5 feet 7), and 15. She’s never even seen the production live. Until this year, she had only attended summer courses at the School of American Ballet; now she is a full-time student. “Unless I receive a position with City Ballet, this was my one opportunity,” she said of performing in the production. “I was very excited.”
But it wasn’t an immediate yes: Andersen lives in the residence hall, which closes for two weeks for the holidays. She, along with seven others, will skip holidays at home to stay in a hotel near Lincoln Center with a parent or guardian.
“It was actually probably the only downside of doing ‘Nutcracker,’” she said, “but I decided it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
She will play a Soldier and a Candy Cane. So will her classmate Ayana Stampley, 14, whose last “Nutcracker” was in 2018. Stampley’s a veteran: Over the years, she’s been a Candy Cane, a Polichinelle, a Mouse, a Soldier and an Angel. At this point, she’s also 5 feet 7. And though she knew the criteria were different this year, she didn’t exactly believe it. At the last minute, she skipped the audition.
“I just wasn’t sure how tall they were willing to go,” she said. “I was kind of scared that if I were to go, they would tell me that I couldn’t get cast, and I’d just be really heartbroken. I didn’t want to go through that.”
When City Ballet contacted her parents to see why she had missed the audition and explained that height was not an issue, Stampley was cast — and she’s thrilled about it. “Before, I didn’t really know how big of a deal it was,” she said. “Now that I’m coming back, I’ll definitely just take all of it in and be in the moment.”
Getting “The Nutcracker” back onstage, though necessary for the financial well being of the company — in a typical year it brings in about 45 percent of City Ballet’s box office revenue — has not been easy. When rehearsals started in fall, there was still uncertainty about the city’s reopening and what the next few months would look like. The company’s artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, said there were many possible “Nutcracker” scenarios, including cutting most of the children or having none at all. Other ideas were to present only the second act or use a filmed version for part of the production.
In the end only six roles were cut: four soldiers and two teenagers in the party scene. But the number of children participating has decreased, too, both for safety — to reduce the amount of people involved — and because there weren’t as many eligible young dancers. Normally, the production features 126 children, split into two casts; this year, it’s down to 74, with two casts of 37 students, most performing two roles. “That’s a big chunk,” Abergel said, “but even so we didn’t have enough at the casting day to fulfill all those roles.”
Her biggest challenge was to find boys — and boys who still look like boys — for the party scene. Stafford opened auditions, for the first time, to academies beyond the School of American Ballet, including Ballet Academy East, Ballet Tech, Alvin Ailey, Ballet Hispánico, Dance Theater of Harlem and American Ballet Theater. Seven girls from Ballet Academy East will appear in the production, as well as six boys from the Ailey school and Ballet Tech, including the two boys alternating as Fritz, Marie’s adorable, incorrigible younger brother.
And after so much uncertainty and time off, opening up “The Nutcracker” to dancers from different schools brings the ballet world a little closer together. Stafford, for one, can’t wait to see the kids together onstage. “Everyone’s just had to do what it takes to get by to survive,” Stafford said. “And so much of it has been coming together.”
And with “The Nutcracker,” they all get to experience what Abergel called “the greatest training ground that Balanchine created for his students,” going from the Angels, which are all about counting and formations, to the Polichinelles and Candy Canes, which bring classroom technique to the stage.
“Within the realm of roles,” Abergel said, “Balanchine has given his students everything they need to become professionals: learning how to act and behave onstage appropriately in the party scene, learning how to count music and then learning to be able to do real steps.”
The other important change will be to the children’s costumes, which are being rebuilt for the occasion — 128 in all — to accommodate bigger sizes. They aren’t one-offs; the costumes are being made so that they can be modified in the future when the cast’s ages and sizes return to normal. But this time, there is something of a surprise, at least for a “Nutcracker” veterans: A return to Karinska’s original designs for the children in the party scene.
Marc Happel, City Ballet’s director of costumes, credits his new assistant and shopper, Joseph Shrope, for researching the designs as they changed throughout Karinska’s life.
“Over the years of being rebuilt and reinterpreted, things had fallen away, and they really didn’t look a whole lot like her original design,” Happel said. “The colors changed a lot. Her color palette was much dustier, and had a very ’50s, ’60s kind of color palette, which is so beautiful. Things got maybe a little more birthday cakelike, or the colors got a little more vibrant.”
They’ve restored the colors — mauves and browns, along with dusty pinks, blues, purples and greens — and brought back some capelets, as well as scalloped edges on skirts.
“Soon enough they’ll be wanting to wear sweatpants and sweatshirts,” Happel said of the girls, “but they come in, and they put on these Victorian party scene dresses, and their eyes go big.”
Of course, freshening up the costumes in such a big way meant spending more money. “It really became, what’s the priority here?” Stafford said. “Is the priority making sure the kids get on, or is the priority trying to make sure we don’t spend too much money?”
But while this year’s “Nutcracker” is giving opportunities to older dancers to perform, the pandemic has prohibited a younger generation from this annual rite of passage — for two long years now. Sophia Thomopoulos, 14, who played Marie in 2019 and starred in the six-part Disney + documentary “On Pointe,” feels for them.
“I would definitely be disappointed,” she said. “At that age, too, it would be harder to understand what was going on — I think I would understand that this has to happen because of Covid, but I would be like, but why? The whole two past years has been really confusing.”
For her, the chance to perform in the “Nutcracker” again was a huge surprise — and a good one — but it also meant having a serious conversation with her parents. It is, as her family well knows, a time commitment. She dances six days a week; two of those days she has two ballet classes. But she decided to grab her last chance.
This year, she will play a Mouse and a Polichinelle, the part she coveted back when she was cast as the lead, Marie. But while she’s excited to be onstage — and backstage, too, where much real fun is had — she sees this year’s “Nutcracker” as being not just for the dancers. It’s for everyone.
“It’s always a really magical experience, but this year it’s going to be very uplifting,” she said. “It was really hard dancing in our rooms for a year and a half. It’s going to say, we did it. We got past the hardest point of Covid. The dancers are back. And you guys can come see the show again.”