Surviving Nutcracker - Act like a professional, Think like a student

Jessica Tretter and me performing the Grand pas de deux w/ Rochester City Ballet (Photo: Kelsey Coventry)

Although it is Tuesday afternoon, today is the second day of my first two-day weekend in over a month. Time-wise, I am halfway through my Nutcracker season. Performance-wise, I am two thirds of the way through all of my shows. I have 18 shows of Cracked Christmas gloriousness this season and to be completely honest, Im ready to be finished. I am already Nutcracker-jaded from my 7 seasons with PNB, often dancing in more than 40 performances from Black Friday to New Year's Eve. Although, 18 shows is nothing compared to my time in Seattle, the main difference is that I am/have performed the leading male role (Cavalier) in 15 of 18 performances. That is a lot of dancing, partnering, warming up, choreography, etc. With the stress of all these factors, a handful of people have asked me how I keep it together during this time of the year. It is as simple as changing my professional mindset.

Rochester City Ballet's The Nutcracker
I have been blessed with the holiday gift of numerous offerings for Nutcracker work. In fact, I have turned down gigs or passed them on to friends at least 10 times, as I have been booked since the end of October. In total, I signed to work with 4 organizations this Nutcracker season. I began my sugar-plummed journey with the honor of being hired as a "principal guest artist" with Rochester City Ballet. After 3 weeks with the company, I flew back to Philly for less than a day and took a train down to Arlington, VA to perform with Ballet Nova. Tomorrow morning, I will be flying down to Myrtle Beach to perform with Coastal Youth Ballet Theatre. I will finish my Nutcracker tour where it all began for me, Chester Valley Dance Academy, in Lionville, PA. Along with the blessing of work, comes the curse of a freelancer. I am not traveling with a partner. Instead, I am being/have been brought in to dance with leading dancers in each company and school. This means that with each gig, I must perform completely different choreography to the exact same music every week for 4 weeks. My biggest concern has been keeping all of the choreography straight.

What is my trick to keeping the choreography straight? I'm still developing this strategy, but this is what has worked for me so far. I had rehearsals with two of the schools before I left for Rochester, so I had the opportunity to dabble with the choreography and put it in the back of my brain for safe keeping. Once I arrived in Rochester, I stopped focusing on my other gigs. For me, it is more important to focus on the task at hand, then to try to juggle what will be happening down the road fresh in my mind. I didn't study or rehearse any choreography that wasn't related to the Nutcracker that I was performing with RCB. I figured that I was less likely to forget or change the choreography if I focused on my current situation. When I was a student, I hadn't figured out the art of multitasking when it came to learning and retaining choreography. In order to keep things straight, I went back to my youthful ways and stayed on one track. Once I had completed my duties in Rochester, I hopped on a plane and began studying the DVD for my next gig. Although I hadn't reviewed the choreography since our one rehearsal as Hurricane Sandy was coming ashore, the base of the work was still somewhere in the back of my brain. I had just spent 72 hours listening to RCB's orchestra play the Nutcracker soundtrack on a loop that repeated 6 times,  but I had to endure the music to refresh my memory. Once I arrived in Arlington, we had a few refresher rehearsals and then knocked out 6 performances of my favorite holiday classic (note the sarcasm). My next gig will be the most challenging, as I have not rehearsed with the dancer and the choreography is quite different. After I finish that gig, it will be smooth sailing from there. I am reprising my role at the academy that I was raised at. Although we have barely rehearsed, the choreography will come back to me easily since I have performed it before.

Aside from retaining choreography, the biggest challenge for me is to remain excited throughout the multitude of performances (and if not, to at least give off the appearance that I am excited).  As I stated before, I am pretty Nutcracker jaded. Not only do I over-rehearse the role (even though I've already had 12 performances, two of my partners haven't rehearsed with me. This means that I have to rehearse from scratch 4 different times), but after rehearsals and shows I have to venture out into the real world to purchase gifts for family and friends. During my shopping trips, it never fails that Nutcracker music is being blasted on the speakers at malls and stores. And to make matters even worse, if I want to sit down and relax, the Russian Trepak and Sugar Plum Fairy variation play on TV for at least one ad during every commercial break. For me, it is 6 weeks of Groundhog Day.

The Eastman Kodak Theatre, Rochester, NY
Wherever I show up for my next set of performances, I have to somehow become excited for the opening of the production, care about the outcome, and be spirited about the upcoming performances. Again, I have to revert away from my professional way of thinking and remember how it felt as child performing in the Nutcracker. At my most recent gig, the entire cast (which included hundreds of students aged 4-18, their parents, and adult performers) was called into the green room for a pre-performance pep talk. This happened prior to each of the 6 shows. There were always spirited words, offerings of good luck, and smiling faces. At the end of each session, everybody held hands, threw their arms up in the air, and screamed NUTCRACKER at the top of their lungs. The first time this happened, I felt like I was going to throw up in my mouth. The last thing I wanted to do was have a Nutcracker pow-wow and then exalt the Nutcracker gods. I went back into my dressing room and I had a long conversation with myself. I've spent ten years as a professional, surrounded mostly by professionals. All, or most (Jessika Anspach), of these professionals generally despise everything about Nutcracker outside of the fact that it paid our salaries for the rest of the year. So, to be surrounded by a bunch of overly excited students was a shock to my system. In my own personal conversation, I thought back to my first days with Nutcracker. This annual holiday performance was usually one of two or three opportunities that I would have all year to get onstage. Also, even if the theatre only seated 200 people and the audience only consisted of family, it felt like the biggest deal ever. Neither the president of the United States, nor the New York Times were present. But it still felt like everybody in the world was seeing it. Lastly, the Nutcracker is actually the reason that nearly everybody I know started dancing in the first place. My professional mind had become jaded to this, so I had to think with my student brain. With this knowledge, I was able to join the cast in their upcoming pre-show rituals and leave the room with a real smile after shouting Nutcracker.

Another place that I really struggle during the Nutcracker season is in taking class, warming up prior to every performance, and keeping each performance fresh. Even during my Nutcracker tenure with big companies, I found it hard to motivate myself each and every day. I already knew the choreography, my body was exhausted, and sometimes my roles didn't require using any flexibility that might require a warmup. I remember when I was a student, I wouldn't do anything without taking class at the beginning of my day or warming up. I would also go over the steps multiple times to be sure that I remembered the choreography. Today, I try to keep these practices with me. When I am performing, I make sure to take class every day. If class isn't available, isn't to my taste, or doesn't fit in my pre-performance schedule, I make sure to give myself a full barre and a healthy serving of center work. Then, I make sure that I do a mini-barre at least 20 minutes prior to my entrance onstage. To keep the performance fresh, I always go over the choreography prior to the show or at intermission. This helps to keep my brain from going on auto-pilot. It keeps my performance fresh and tricks my mind into thinking that this is a new piece for me. In the end, I believe that all of these things help to protect my body. Dancing without properly warming up can present wear and tear on the body and dancing on auto-pilot can lead to simple mistakes or injury.

Whether you are performing in 40 shows with one company or 20 shows at multiple venues, surviving Nutcracker can be a great challenge. Aside from remembering choreography, multiple performances in multiple settings can provide physical and mental challenges. When I was a student, I was excited for everything. As many of us professionals gain experience and grow older, we forget about the joy that Nutcracker brought to us and how it led many of us to performance careers. If we all remember what it felt like to be a student, we can help pull ourselves out of Nutcracker doldums, do our jobs well, and pull through the season healthy.

My Sugar Plum (Jessica Tretter) and me after our last show for Rochester City Ballet's Nutcracker

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